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.

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