Monday, January 28, 2008

Tone Deaf

(Editor's note: While The Man from Porlock recovers from non-blogging-related injuries, we are pleased to offer a review from guest-blogger Helen, over to visit from a neighboring manor....)

I’ve been looking at some reviews of Atonement to see what people are saying about how close the movie comes to the spirit of Ian McEwan's novel. A lot of people are saying that this particularly complex novel must have been so nearly impossible to compact into a screenplay—and that the movie, after all, is beautiful and haunting—so it must have done a pretty good job of it somehow. Many reviewers brush over the topic lightly, saying that the movie doesn’t quite catch the right tone, but without going into any details about it. David Edelstein has more specific things to say, and I found his thoughts helpful because I think one of the key areas in which the movie misses the mark is the way young Briony Tallis is characterized.

In Atonement: The Book, Briony is in a kind of a fever after working on her play non-stop for days on end. She has a debilitating crush on Robbie, is precocious and convinced she was beginning to grasp the secret workings of the behind-the-door adult world, and has a vivid and imaginative inner life. Atonement: The Movie, however, doesn’t make time to let us see these parts of Briony’s personality—the Briony we see here is a bit like a possessed character out of early Stephen King, driven by some kind of unstoppable mania. She goose-steps around the mansion, in time to the sounds of the clicking typewriter, like a frenzied automaton and not the highly sensitive girl from the original story.

I think the clicking typewriter is meant to convey many other things, like the power of fiction, but its dominant, insistent, and steely pounding strongly affects how we react to this central character when we are first introduced to her. And that changes the whole course of how the story plays out in the movie: Briony's mistake feels predestined and inevitable. It happens like clockwork to the clacking of the typewriter keys (and seems akin to Paul Marshall's attitude about the war, that it is also inevitable and unstoppable).

So, where does atonement (with a lower-case "a," in the sense of making amends) fit into this scenario? I think the movie loses the whole sense of Briony's individual responsibility for the personal events, and of our collective responsibilty for the larger political events that unfold. It lacks the very sharp edge that McEwan's novel wields.

Friday, January 25, 2008

One Step at a Time

I had some minor surgery performed yesterday, taking care of a broken toe from that time I smashed my foot through a movie theater chair.* Everything's going fine, pity-whore that I am, the only drawback being I'm deprived of this weekend's new releases: the ravishing Diane Lane wasted again in what is reportedly a wretched thriller; and Sly Stallone flexing his thespian muscles in Rambo: Third Blood, Part Four, or wherever we are in the neverending saga. Stallone received mysteriously good reviews for his Rocky update last year, so if they come again we'll know the fix is in.

While I'm on the mend, I urge everyone with a pair of good legs to check out instead the re-release of No Country for Old Men and the wider release of There Will Be Blood. Both of them Oscar heavies, and more than worthy, though I'm leaning toward the budding theory that they're going to cancel each other out, leaving a sleeper like Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (I keep wanting to call it Michael Gilroy) with the big prize. Granted, my predictions for the nominations were pretty laughable, but I did call Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie's shut-outs. I'm streaky.

*Just kidding about the chair, though not the toe.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Oh, what the hell....

Normally I don't give a shit about the Oscars, so it's appropriate that the one year I'm at least halfway interested in some of the contenders is the year that the telecast may be in jeopardy. Nevertheless, with the nominees to be announced tomorrow, the guessing games have reached a crescendo. A quartet of prognosticator's at Ed Copeland's site have weighed in with their forecasts, which have a few deviations but contain mostly uniformity similar to what I've read elsewhere. There are usually a few shocks, however, so with that in mind, here are some of my general thoughts (take them for what they're worth -- nothing):

BEST PICTURE. Not a shoo-in: Most of the favorites are vulnerable, including, I suspect, There Will Be Blood. P.T. Anderson should be in for Director and Screenplay Adaptation, Day-Lewis for Actor, and a bunch of technical awards, but if enough people in Hollywood hate the movie, who knows? Dark Horse: Into the Wild.

BEST ACTOR. I predict Johnny Depp and Denzel Washington are not sure-things as many suspect. I also don't see Viggo Mortensen getting in either. Dark Horses: James McAvoy (if Atonement goes over big) and Frank Langella.

BEST ACTRESS. A weak year, but I'm not sold that Angelina Jolie is a lock. Dark Horse: Keira Knightley, again depending on the level of Atonement-love.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR. Sorry, but I'm not sold on Casey Affleck. Dark Horse: Tommy Lee Jones and (even darker) Paul Dano.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: I know this is typically the category where a Young Actress gets a slot, but I agree with Odienator that Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement) has an edge over Whatsherface, her younger, favored co-star.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Under the Skin

David Cronenberg's bid for respectability continues with Eastern Promises, his London-based thriller starring Naomi Watts as a midwife who runs afoul of the Russian mafia after both the baby and the diary of a deceased prostitute fall into her hands. Hitchcock would have had a ball with this premise (as well as the iconic icy-blonde lead), but old habits die hard for Cronenberg, who never met a slit throat or disembowelment or guillotined fingers that his camera couldn't linger on lovingly. The film's already-famous setpiece, a bloody brawl in a sauna featuring Viggo Mortensen's disgruntled Russkie chaffeur (who gradually comes to assist Watts's quest for justice) fending off a pair of assassins with nothing but a towel, and eventually less, is stunningly choreographed. Unfortunately, Cronenberg's patented overkill style creates too much dissonance from the moral themes in Steve Knight's script, resulting in a film that should have resonated more deeply than it did.

I almost wish I had attended a screening of Bug during its opening weekend last year, just to see the dropped jaws of the dudes and dudettes who had eagerly lined up for a disingenuously-advertised splatter film only to witness a nutball psychological thriller unfolding before their eyes. I initially wasn't aware of Tracy Letts's original stage play either, but the film's roots are evident from start to finish, with its claustrophobic hotel setting and babbling brooks of dialogue and horrors more implied than shown. Those premiere audiences reportedly gave Bug quite a hard time, and admittedly I was tittering quite a bit myself in the movie's second half, when the bond between Ashley Judd's lonely waitress and Michael Shannon's creepy conspiracy-theorist (who believes that bugs are popping out of his skin, among other things) enters the twilight zone of schizophrenic paranoid delusions involving a lot of screaming and flailing limbs and self-inflicted dentistry and wrapping things in tin foil. In many ways it's a terrible movie, yet I don't hate it. From a distance I even feel a bit of affection for it, namely regarding the actors' willingness to risk making fools of themselves (and boy, do they ever) and the ingenuity of director William Friedkin's subjective staging. The recurring motif in Friedkin's body of work (which includes The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer) is the Self-Immolating Male, and He's back again, only this time adding a female lead to what ends in a Molotov-cocktail mix. For sheer lunatic intensity, Judd's performance in the final 20 minutes rivals Daniel Day-Lewis's at the climax of There Will Be Blood: insofar as catchphrases go, "I am the Super Mother Bug" isn't quite up to the level of "I drink your milkshake," but it's close.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Blood Lines

(Warning: There Will Be Spoilers)

One of my favorite classes in college was an English course in late-19th/early-20th century American literature, where we studied the "naturalists" (fiction writers influenced by Darwin or Social Darwinism or other related theories) and their works: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, Frank Norris's McTeague. Not exactly the feel-good class of the year, but these novels (along with their British counterparts, especially Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge) left me riveted by their epic scope, intimate details, poetic flourishes and bursts of teeming humanity along the way to inevitable tragedy. I don't believe it's an overstatement to say that Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood has the density, mystery and rough poetry of a great novel from the era it depicts. (Of course it's adapted from one: Oil! by Upton Sinclair.) Based on some of the criticisms, it's also a telling example on the inability of some viewers to read a movie.

I don't pretend to be an expert on this by any means: I generally don't get DePalma, I dislike Tim Burton, I despise David Lynch. Obviously the fans of these filmmakers -- all of whom tend to communicate information visually -- bring something to the table that I lack. In a similar vein, perhaps it is partly because of that English class that I "got" There Will Be Blood. I got it every step of the way, so much so that I can read a well-reasoned, thoughtful critique of the film by somebody like Dan Sallitt and still find it completely wrongheaded.

Let's examine a couple of salient points from Sallitt's review, starting with his criticism that Plainview's behavior toward his adopted son is initially "not comprehensible," particularly during the scene where he abandons H.W., who has been seriously injured in an oil fire, to survey the damage of the fire to his derrick:

"It will become comprehensible much later, when we discover that Plainview sees H.W. as an advertising aid for his business rather than as a son, and cares little for him. In retrospect, Plainview's occasional nurturing gestures toward the boy register as a bit of vestigial good will in the man's nature, good will that he does not value highly or factor into his life decisions. This works for me."

I would argue that it's more than a little vestigial. Almost from the moment Plainview adopts H.W. after the latter's father dies, it's plainly obvious that he loves him. Economical filmmaker that he is, Anderson indicates this in a simple early scene, with Plainview gazing at H.W. tenderly as they travel by train. I doubt that at this point in the story (the year 1902, right after he has struck oil for the first time, and when H.W. is still an infant) Plainview is already thinking ahead to how he can use the child to make himself appear more respectable years down the road -- the expression on Daniel Day-Lewis's face suggests nothing of the sort. Nor do I think that we're supposed to take Plainview's words at face-value near the end of the film, when he disowns H.W., reveals the boy's true origins, and calls him a "bastard in a basket." Again, Day-Lewis makes it clear that Plainview is deeply wounded by H.W.'s desire to end their partnership and start his own business, so he lashes out at him. And Anderson makes Plainview's true feelings clear when immediately following this scene he shows a brief flashback of H.W. and Plainview in earlier happier days. That this is the only flashback in the movie underscores the director's intent. Even though this thread of character psychology ultimately "works" for Sallitt, I still think he's misreading it.

Another of Sallitt's criticisms concerns the lack of jurisprudence in the film. After H.W. goes deaf as the result of the oil fire, and Eli Sunday comes to demand his money, Plainview attacks Eli in public, slapping the young preacher around in the mud. "Does the church have legal recourse?" Sallitt wonders. "Do the spectators accept Plainview's power to beat whomever he pleases?" Continuing along these lines, he then focuses on Plainview's murder of a man claiming to be his half-brother, and the actions of Bandy, a backwoodsman who seems to suspect Plainview's crime and demands that Plainview be baptized and cleansed of his sins:

"Is Plainview in any danger of arrest and conviction? Is Bandy unconcerned with the murder, despite his religious bent? These are not questions about character nuance: they are central to the narrative legibility of the scene. Anderson neither answers the questions nor makes it clear that he prefers mystery."

Even if we took for granted that the 1911 rural California police force was a crack crime-fighting unit, were they really in the business of arresting oil tycoons? And would the inhabitants of this turn-of-the-century western town, the majority of whom are probably in Plainview's employ, be inclined to turn him in? (I also don't think we're supposed to take Plainview seriously when he accuses Eli of not using his healing powers to cure H.W.; it's already been established that he finds Eli a fraud, that the real issue is Eli's callousness under the circumstances.) Furthermore, and I don't mean to sound antagonistic toward anyone's convictions, but history has pretty well demonstrated that religion and homicide aren't necessarily incompatible. (Am I remembering the scene incorrectly, or wasn't Bandy packing heat himself?) Within a few minutes, Anderson presents Bandy as I believe he's intended to be: a man with implications of a checkered past, as were many Americans who fled west; and a man more concerned with God's law than that of the secular authorities. Why should the director waste more screen-time spelling out what we should already know?

The last of Sallitt's arguments that I want to consider, and really the heart of the matter for him, is summed up thusly:

"Anderson seems not to be thinking at all about positioning the audience relative to these mysteries. My reaction was confusion."

It is worth noting that Anderson has never used voice-over in any of his movies (other than briefly with Ricky Jay in Magnolia). Narration may bring us inside a character's head but often at the expense of actually letting us see what is onscreen. In There Will Be Blood, Anderson has a protagonist who doesn't initially reveal his every thought and feeling. As he comes to open up later -- beginning with Henry, his alleged half-brother, to whom Plainview admits that he basically hates humanity -- the verbal information we get regarding the character both supports what has been previously presented to us visually and establishes his motives in scenes to come.

The point-of-view in the film is difficult to ascertain: most of it is centered on Plainview, with occasional shifts to H.W. and Eli. But there is a difference between being with a character and seeing things from his perspective. From the opening scene in the movie -- a wide shot of mountains, panning down to a hole in the ground -- Anderson uses a third-person limited omniscient perspective: "limited omniscient" may sound like a contradiction in terms but what I mean is that we have a God's-eye view of the action focusing almost exclusively on one character. This perspective continues in a subsequent early scene, when the camera observes from overhead an injured Plainview crawling out of the hole on his back, clutching a rock caked with silver (his windfall) as the camera pans back up to the mountain tops. It is established that no matter how rich and powerful Plainview becomes, he is ultimately small in the face of nature. (And perhaps God too. While Eli is in many ways a stereotypical character, Anderson seems to leave open the possibility that this preacher, however false a prophet, may be right about the consequences of Plainview denying him to bless the well, given the troubles that follow.)

It is only in a few brief scenes that we definitively see the action through Plainview's eyes, as when he begins to suspect Henry for a fraud -- first while swimming in the ocean's surf, then shortly afterwards in the brothel, where along with Plainview we hear but do not see the goings-on outside his quarters. For the most part, though, Anderson shies away from the subjective camerawork of his earlier movies, remaining slightly distant from his central protagonist in the manner of Dreiser, Hardy, et al, a compassionate deity who opts not to intervene. (His love is reserved for H.W., the only character given the possibility of happiness.) Nor does Anderson ride in to save the day with a happy ending like those of his previous works. Although the final scene is played in tight confines, the point-of-view remains remote, making Plainview's final line -- "Yes, I'm finished" (in a strange way reminiscent of Adam Sandler's first words in Punch-Drunk Love: "Yes, I'm still on hold") -- accurate, and in more ways than one. If Anderson makes a mistake at the close, it is with the sudden injection of Brahms on the soundtrack (a Kubrickian flourish when silence would have been more apt); but this is redeemed by his choosing to frame Plainview not from a low-angle gazing up in awe, but at a distance, diminishing him. Plainview is finished. This movie will live forever.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Disparate Opinions

You can tell a movie has touched a nerve when both its critics and admirers feel put-upon:

"(There Will Be) Blood is the sort of movie....that inspires zealous oratory, fixation on marginalia and even pre-emptive strikes against criticism." -- Matt Zoller Seitz

"There are great films....and then there are films that send shock waves through the very landscape of cinema, that instantly stake a claim on a place in the canon. Often, such vanguard works fail to be fully understood or appreciated at the moment they first appear, as some of the initial reviews that greeted Psycho, 2001 and Bonnie and Clyde attest. There Will Be Blood belongs in their company, and I consider myself fortunate to belong to a group with the foresight to recognize it in its own moment." --Scott Foundas

I'll offer my own review of There Will Be Blood probably later this week, but for now I'll just tip my hand and say that Foundas proves that one can come across as a pompous ass and still be right.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fringe Characters

Over at Dennis Cozzalio's site, a debate broke out recently over Juno, which DC had nominated for Worst Film of the Year honors and in his post included the following choice words:

"For Juno....pregnancy boils down to yet another accessory, an emblem of the character’s ultimate outsider status which the film uses as a weapon (in a particularly nasty scene in which Juno and her stepmother shout down a radiologist for asking sensible questions about her pregnancy) as much as for instant sympathy."

I found myself nodding along in "Amen, brother" fashion while I read this, perhaps because I had singled out the same scene in my review. Soon after, however, in Cozzalio's comments section, Simon Crowe begged to differ:

"The fact that you consider the moralistic and inappropriate questions of the ultrasound tech to be reasonable are a clear tip that your judgment of Juno is out of whack. There's no context in which that character's behavior wasn't out of line, but I'm guessing her views echo your personal beliefs. "

Cozzalio in turn replied that Crowe could "substitute 'sensible'....for 'reasonable,' or maybe you could just say 'concerned,' which is what I think the ultrasound technician shows in the scene, unsolicited, inappropriate or not." But for me, it was in his subsequent observation that the discussion took a more interesting turn:

"[T]he fact that the characters respond to her inquiry the way they do seemed quite in line with a long tradition of scoring points off of the supposed insensitivity of peripheral characters in order to validate the point of view of characters who are clearly far more justified (emphasis added), at least in the movie's mind."

Not only did this explain in more concise terms why I hated that scene -- and Juno in general -- but it got me thinking about the difference between movies with an inclusive point of view and movies with what one could call an exclusivist perspective. The distinction is tricky, of course: I'm not necessarily talking about a "populist" sensibility like Spielberg's or James L. Brooks's as opposed to the more divisive appeal of a worldview like that of Kubrick or the Coens. What I mean is a sense that in a world of a particular film there is an acknowledgement, however tacit, that all the characters have lives beyond what we see in the frame.

This, too, can be difficult to evaluate. Spielberg, of course, received a heaping of criticism for his depiction of Arabs in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while a lot of it was probably accurate, I must confess that I still laugh when Indy shoots the swordsman in the marketplace. (My only defense, immaturity aside, is that I think I'm laughing at the undermining of audience expectations of a big action movie fight scene, not at who the character is or what he represents.) Of course criticism of Spielberg went the other way with Munich, which some saw as applying too much moral equivalency to the methods of Islamists with those of certain Western governments. I still struggle with the themes of that film; but I also remain haunted by the humane portrayal of the assassins' targets, especially the man who kindly talks with Eric Bana on the hotel veranda moments before he's blown to smithereens.

Less controversially but no less pointedly, the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (whose style I have not been alone in comparing to the young Spielberg) employs minor characters in profound ways in The Host. For the first third of the movie, we see the action through the family of a girl -- namely the girl's father (played by Song Kang-ho) -- abducted by a creature terrorizing Seoul. Suddenly, in a scene under a bridge, the perspective shifts for a few minutes from the family to a pair of new characters, a father and son, looking for food in the area. Although one of them is eventually killed by the monster, they're not used as fodder. At the end of the movie, Joon-ho makes his intentions clear, implying that the lives of these seemingly unimportant characters have as much value as the ones who occupy most of the screen.

A cursory viewing of most movies shows just how radical a notion this is. I mentioned Brooks earlier because it was in Terms of Endearment -- one of the first "grown-up" films I remember seeing as a kid -- that he featured a scene in a supermarket where Debra Winger is unable to pay for her groceries. A nasty checkout girl rolls her eyes and bellows into the store mike: "Can I have the register key? She doesn't have enough money!" As Winger eliminates items to purchase, to the anger and embarrassment of her boys, the checkout girl continues in this fashion until John Lithgow, behind Winger in line, steps up and offers to pay for the groceries. He then says something to the effect of, "You're a very rude young woman. I know the owner of this store and I don't believe he would want you treating your customers so badly." When the girl replies that she doesn't think she was treating Winger badly, Lithgow retorts, "Then you must be from New York."

When I was younger I laughed at this scene more than I do now. It's a nifty gotcha moment, exquisitely timed, but today I see Brooks as pandering to the audience in the same way that Cozzalio accuses Reitman and Cody of doing in the scene in Juno with the ultrasound woman: Who hasn't been humiliated at one time or another in a grocery store line, or felt degraded by hospital personnel? It's easy to score points at the expense of supporting characters meant to personify environments that we the audience see as hostile or indifferent; it's far more daring and satisfying to depict these characters as separate from, or even victims of, the same system.

Say what you will about Judd Apatow (he's too crass, he's actually conservative, he doesn't get women), I can't give into the backlash for the simple reason that his universe is so expansive. Consider the scene in Knocked Up where Leslie Mann launches into a tirade against the bouncer denying her entry into a nightclub. In any other movie, she would have stormed off in a huff and that would have been the end of it. Here, though, the bouncer takes her aside and has a quiet monologue (brilliantly delivered by Craig Robinson) that not only gives this minor character the last word but delves into issues of gender, age and social class. And compare the aformentioned scene in Juno with the one in Knocked Up where an Asian physician (the excellent Ken Jeong) has an argument with Katherine Heigl while she's in labor. Seth Rogen asks him to step outside the delivery room, and rather than tell him off Rogen tries reasoning with him until the doctor calms down and reenters the delivery room with a new perspective. He comes across not as the butt of a joke, but as something hardly ever seen in movies: a human being who's just having a bad day.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


If I hadn't known the background of Charlie Wilson's War, I might have been tempted to bolt after the opening scene, when Tom Hanks gets a medal pinned to his chest. In so many ways it's a natural moment for Hanks, what with Apollo 13 and Normandy Beach long added to his considerable list of credits. (Forrest Gump got his medals beforehand.) Yet I had a shudder of recall in thinking about when Harrison Ford -- our last National Treasure, Most-Trusted Actor, and other superlatives -- became the onscreen recepient of apparently one merit badge too many and went into a midlife tailspin: donning a stud earring; dating Lara Flynn Boyle; making helicopter rescues timed to the release of whatever his latest movie. Now in his fifties, Hanks must have decided to heed this cautionary tale and veer away from the Noble Heroes at least long enough to play the title character in this film, a roguish Texas congressman up to his eyeballs in booze, bimbos and drugs, yet who also played a critical role at a pivotal moment in modern history.

Admittedly, the movie fudges on all counts. As it flashes back to an earlier time in Wilson's political career, Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin (the director and writer, respectively) are careful to put Hanks near strippers and cocaine without being directly involved with either. On Wilson's mind at all times is the war in Afghanistan between the invading Soviet army and the Mujahideen, but even as he hatches a complex scheme to aid the latter -- impressively combining the efforts of American evangelicals, the Israeli military, and Pakistani dictators -- the result is rendered as another simplistic Sorkin thesis: money + stinger missiles = voila, end of Communism.

Having said that, Charlie Wilson's War is Sorkin's best piece of writing in years, smart and sparkling in all the ways that last year's TV debacle, Studio 60, wasn't. (Preachiness + Sarah Paulson = not funny.) He may be the best screen collaborator that Nichols has had since Buck Henry, perhaps even better in that Sorkin's idealism dilutes Nichols' cynicism and vice-versa. They do so well by each other that Hanks can be somewhat miscast and still give a jaunty, richly enjoyable performance, and that reliable killjoy Julia Roberts can show up (in a small but key role of Joanne Herring, a wealthy crusading Christian socialite with unusual allies in the Muslim world) and be suprisingly tolerable.

Best of all, though, is Philip Seymour Hoffman. As Gust Avrokotos, the hot-headed yet keen-eyed CIA agent who assists Wilson with his covert plans, Hoffman wears his rumpled suits, walrus mustache and fuck-you attitude as if he's had them all his life. In the movie's best scene (beautifully tailored by Nichols and Sorkin's expert stagecraft), Hoffman is rotated with a phalanx of scantily-clad secretaries in and out of Wilson's office while the latter juggles damage control on a sex-and-drugs scandal with news on the war in Afghanistan. Gust doesn't win a medal in Charlie Wilson's War, but he's the movie's real hero, not only by how he helped to win the Cold War but through his foresight on how we stood to lose the peace.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Baby with the Bathwater

Being a man, I won't pretend to understand all that's involved in the various stages of pregnancy. But now, thanks to Juno, I have an idea of the violent mood-swings involved:

Minutes Into Movie + Emotional State:
0:00-0:03: Animated opening credit sequence. Exaggerated giddiness.
0:05: Title character opens her mouth. Exaggerated teeth-gnashing.
0:07: Close-up of Michael Cera's skinny legs and short-shorts. Uncontrollable sobbing.
0:10:-0:12: Asian girl appears, protesting outside abortion clinic, and naturally is incapable of speaking decent English. (She keeps saying "borned" instead of "born.") Something's kicking: It's my foot through the chair in front of me!

The movie goes on like this, veering between poorly written and/or staged scenes (the abortion clinic sequence, with its ugly mise-en-scene and hideous receptionist, that stacks the deck against an alternative to Juno having the baby; a later encounter with an ultrasound technician -- the only other minority character -- who gets told off by Juno's stepmother following an offhand remark about teen mothers) and other moments that are surpisingly affecting (anything with the above-mentioned Michael Cera's Bleeker, the bewildered father of Juno's child, whose stealthy, below-radar demeanor sets him apart from other young actors; the gentle spin that J.K. Simmons, as Juno's dad, puts on the I-love-you-for-who-you-are monologue straight out of John Hughes). Often this type of schizoid script is the product of screenwriting-by-committee meddling, but here it seems the result of Diablo Cody's novice writing and Jason Reitman's direction - which, as with his previous film, Thank You for Smoking, is sure-handed on the surface yet facile underneath.

Reitman does a lot of things right: I laughed at every appearance of the track team, taking us through the seasons of the story; his handling of Juno going into labor is a mostly silent montage, sparing us the usual "push! push! push!"; and a closing scene with Juno and Bleeker curled up on a bed is very moving. He's capable of making a great comedy someday. Why Juno isn't one has been argued persuasively by Lauren Wissot's review, which draws an effective comparison between the near-uniform lingo of this film to the distinct voices of the characters in Little Miss Sunshine (the predictable backlash against that movie notwithstanding, as if had been intended as a docudrama about familial dysfunction). What I find most grating about Juno isn't so much Ellen Page's performance in the lead, which does everything that's expected of her, but rather the singular, monotonous "voice" of the film. Whether more Cody's or Reitman's, it's this voice that attitudinizes Juno's situation without adequately defining it, that takes us inside her head but is too timid to let her speak as a human being in the real world.

Juno is not a good movie, but at least it feels like a movie. Waitress is a glorified sitcom, with a cast of familiar TV faces to underscore the point. Keri Russell (from Felicity ) is Jenna, the pie-making expert trapped in an unhappy marriage and waiting tables at a local diner in what is presumably a small southern town; Nathan Fillion (Firefly) is Dr. Pomatter, the transplanted Connecticut physician with whom she has a comical affair; Andy Griffith (er, Andy Griffith) makes a rare supporting turn as Old Joe, the curmudgeony diner owner; Jeremy Sisto (Law & Order and about a half-dozen other shows) gets far too much screen time as Earl, Jenna's by turns violent and needy spouse and the most tiresomely buffoonish screen husband since Geena Davis's in Thelma & Louise. The story of whether Jenna, who gets preggers by Earl, will escape her dead-end marriage, job and town with baby in tow, is telegraphed to suit the limited range of the performers, its only surprises -- will she win a pie-making contest or acquire a windfall from Joe? -- deriving from the selection of one cliche over another.

Waitress was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, whose tragic murder last year makes one feel unseemly for panning the movie. Better known as an actress during her career, Shelly gives a sprightly supporting turn as scatterbrained waitress Dawn and may have made a better lead than Russell (who is decent in dramatic scenes but doesn't have the comic chops needed for others). Shelly does stage a funny montage to Jenna's realization that she's in love with Dr. Pomatter; but she doesn't convey Jenna's cuisinary talents, either as a form of erotic expression along the lines of Like Water for Chocolate or as a proudly cultivated skill like that of the chefs in Big Night. The pies just kind of sit there, and so does the movie.