By Alexander B. Huls
A couple of times each year there’s inevitably some quirky off-beat film that becomes a phenomenon, an “it” film, if you will. The one people brandish at parties like a merit badge designating their supposed hipness. Last year it was Little Miss Sunshine. Earlier last year it seemed to be Children of Men, and late last year and into this year the “it” film is undoubtedly Juno.
Everybody loves Juno. The critics love it. At the time of this writing Rotten Tomatoes has it at 93%. The people love it. On IMDB, 37,889 users have helped it achieve a 8.3 out of 10 rating, making it #120 in the Top 250 movies of all time on IMDB, and it’s recently surpassed the $100 million dollar mark at the box office. The Academy loves it. They recently nominated it for four major categories: best original screenplay (Diablo Cody), best director (Jason Reitman), best actress (Ellen Page) and best picture. Everyone I know loves it. One friend is even going so far as to writing an essay on it, and another put it on his Best of 2007 list.
The thing is, I didn’t love it. I barely even liked it.
Now even people who love the film seem to at least concede that Juno has problems, most notably in its first twenty minutes (the drugstore scene in particular). A natural assessment, given that that segment of the film is hampered by an excess of exhibitionism, most notably its over-written dialogue that smacks of desperation to be perceived as “hip” and “quirky.” While for most people those twenty minutes proved to be something to tolerate in order to get to the rest of the film which they loved, for me the film remained consistently problematic, if not even more so, largely in its central character and its craft (vague, I know, but more on that later).
Though the dialogue admittedly improves (mellows down) for three-fourths of the film, the character of Juno doesn’t. She remains an obnoxious smart-ass, wielding her sense of self and supposed individuality with all the subtlety of a chainsaw (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing that so obnoxiously), leaving the other characters to be nothing more than foils, accentuating how “cool” and “hip” we’re supposed to find Juno. Or at least how I’m supposed to find Juno, because it seems that most people somehow find Juno endearing.
Don’t get me wrong, I get — for the most part — why everyone likes Juno. She is easily seen as a witty, self-empowered, determined, intelligent and pop-culture savvy young woman, who is not without her moments of charm and vulnerability. (Though I do find myself wondering how a supposed intelligent young woman who resolutely decides to have sex doesn’t think to go on the pill or at least have a condom handy). I’m even willing to concede that Juno’s annoying behavior can easily be attributed to the fact that the film does attempt to deal with the notion of adolescent self-discovery. Juno’s behavior smacks of just that: a teenager believing she’s found out who she is, and overemphasizing it to hide an inner insecurity and uncertainty.
That doesn’t change the fact that, in the end, I find her annoying. I’ll never begrudge someone self-confidence sprung from being or trying to be certain of one’s self, but I will begrudge them asserting that self if it’s annoying and obnoxious. People will argue me on this point (and already have) but when I watch scenes like the one where Juno first meets Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman’s characters, it’s hard for me to find anything to like in a someone who can’t go a minute without making a sarcastic comment, who veers on rudeness (and is seemingly unaware of that fact, to make matters worse), and avoids the seriousness of the situation with the ironic detachment that is perhaps representative of our and her generation, but is taken to such an extreme that she comes off as nothing more than a self-centered, spoiled child, who appears to be actively trying to be cool by seeming not to be (which as most of us know, is not cool at all).
Let me put it this way. Transpose Juno into the “real world,” and ask yourself honestly if after the initial novelty of being her friend wore off, you wouldn’t start getting tired of her constant smart-ass remarks, her feigned ironic apathy, and borderline condescension about her taste in popular culture.
Juno is also for me a representation of a bigger problem I had with the film: forced or manufactured quirkiness. Like most of my points here, I can easily concede that this might be over-sensitivity on my part, but everything about the film’s tone feels forced. The “quirk,” if you will, feels pre-meditated, as opposed to being something that emerges naturally from the characters and the plot. The overdone dialogue, the excess of Juno’s individuality, and even the insanely solipsistic soundtrack that seems to be pleading with you to make it this year’s Garden State soundtrack (seeing as it sits as the #1 bestseller in Amazon.com’s music section, it seems it is), feels precisely contrived to allow it to become the quirky “it” film it has, in fact, become.
When you not only have a character clearly and visibly using something as painfully obvious and “quirky” as a hamburger phone, but have an actual scene where said character unnecessarily informs someone that they are, in fact, using a hamburger phone, it seems like the film is desperate to make sure you appreciate a pre-meditated quirkiness it’s distinctly aware of.
Before you think me entirely heartless, I can’t say I disliked the entire film. Everyone gave stellar performances, most notably Jennifer Garner, J.K. Simmons, and Ellen Page (even if she had to work with a poor character). Diablo Cody is obviously a screenwriter to look out for, even if I had issues with this film. And her new column with Entertainment Weekly proves her to be the charming, funny type of person Juno isn’t, so I look forward to her future projects.
I even enjoyed the final twenty minutes, most likely because it seemed like the film forgot to try and be cool and instead focused on realizing the emotional payoffs it had been building towards, and treating them with the poignancy those moments deserved. That’s not to say many of those moments were not conflicting for me because they too had problems. Juno’s confession of love to Paulie is a tender, well-written moment, largely because it gives us a more vulnerable and sweet Juno. But it proved ultimately to be an empty one for me because the film has never once given us any reason why Juno would or should feel this way about him. Juno’s step-mother standing up for her at the doctor’s office was another poignant moment, even if it rested on the improbability of an ultrasound machine operator forgetting her professionalism. And so on.
In the end, though, the final twenty minutes were just too little too late, and as I left the theatre I felt like I was back in high school, watching the most popular kid be swarmed with people starving to give him/her attention, and all I’m thinking is: “I don’t get it.”