Photograph by Doane Gregory
Speedy Delivery: Wannabe adoptive parents Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman audition with knocked-up sasspot Ellen Page in 'Juno.'
Jason Reitman's 'Juno' overflows with predictable types.
By Richard von Busack
Kimya Dawson, singer/songwriter and mother, provides most of the soundtrack for Juno. Dawson's plangent, folky phrasing, her bristly wisecracks and her sensitive heart are completely authentic. Dawson still performs on the folk circuit, bringing her beloved child along with her, and I hope she receives many residual checks from Juno. I love you, Kimya—don't read the rest of this review! Because I think this movie sponges off you like a bad boyfriend. In Dancing Elk, Minn., the pert 16-year-old Juno (Ellen Page) is accidentally impregnated. She decides to keep the baby after 30 seconds in an abortion clinic; the place smells like disinfectant, and a protester outside told her the baby has fingernails already. Juno seeks some surrogate parents for the adoption, instantly finding the rich and cool (though mid-30s) TV commercial composer Mark (Jason Bateman), whose chilly wife, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner, doing her best to look attenuated), is desperate for a baby. Juno is happy to accommodate.
As slick and as deep as a bumper sticker, Juno has already been chucked on the chin by most of the nation's critics. Jason Reitman, of Thank You for Smoking, directs the script by Diablo Cody, a noted blogger. The producers are sure they have the authentic voice of youth on tap. Unfortunately, the dashed-off comments and easy hypertextual snark of one medium doesn't translate to the other. Juno's put-downs and name-drops present real mouthfuls for the actors; they don't sound real enough for virtual reality. We can see what kind of styles Juno favors. She wears flannel over ironic T-shirts and sucks on, but never actually smokes, a bulldog-style pipe. She worships 1977 punk rock, but we never hear any. And she has some kind of off-again, on-again friendship (with benefits) with her goofy pal Bleeker (Michael Cera from Superbad), a runner always seen in full gym drag. His symbol is the most unflattering of colors: orange. (It is supposed to be fetchingly weird that he likes orange Tic Tacs.)
Repeatedly, we see a pint-size Page forcing her way against the flow of traffic in a high school hallway. But that's all she's really pushing against. Her parents are the off-beat, coupon-clipping, sassy blue-collar stereotypes we've all been watching on TV for decades, Admittedly, J.K. Simmons is obviously happy to play a warm character for a change as the father, and Allison Janney provides some low-sodium saltiness as Juno's stepmother. But there isn't a character here who isn't just a type.
Page may be a real actress, but so far what we see resembles Jane Fonda's early years—all cool self-possession, no serious grit. What's eating Juno is prime Screenwriting 101: her real mother didn't mother her enough. In a grandstanding emotional moment, Juno says, "I don't know what kind of girl I am." And yet she doesn't say an uncalculated thing in the entire film. Juno drops a Dumpster-load of references on you—from McSweeney's to Herschell Gordon Lewis to Sonic Youth—all of them torn from the headlines of 1997's weekly newspapers. Nothing can disguise the sitcom ping-pong of wisecracks traded and parried. Slightly more literate than the average TV show, the film ends up slower than many. It's like a half-speed episode of Gilmore Girls.
JUNO (PG-13; 92 min.), directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody, photographed by Eric Steelberg and starring Ellen Page and Jason Bateman, opens Friday at the the Del Mar in Santa Cruz, and Tuesday at Green Valley Cinema 8 in Watsonville.
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