Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Juno / **** (PG-13)

Juno MacGuff: Ellen Page
Paulie Bleecker: Michael Cera
Vanessa Loring: Jennifer Garner
Mark Loring: Jason Bateman
Mac MacGuff: J.K. Simmons
Bren MacGuff: Allison Janney
Leah: Olivia Thirlby

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Diablo Cody. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual content and language).

“Juno” is a warm, sweet, funny, witty, sharp, smart comedy about growing up when it is jump-started by an unplanned teenage pregnancy. The movie stars a bright new rising star in the title role named Ellen Page. Some may remember the praise I showered on her for her shocking performance in the thriller “Hard Candy” where a young girl turns the tables and delivers the ultimate revenge on an Internet predator. “Juno” shows audiences the sunnier side of this great new talent, even if that sun just “shines out (her) butt.”

Juno is a teen who approaches life with a quick sardonic wit. She is clearly an intelligent girl who is well aware that her maturity level is lagging behind her enlightened views of the world. She talks in a series of slang and pop culture references with biting commentary on the world she observes around her. But she is not sure of her place in it yet. The dialogue she practices and inspires in the people around her is like a foreign language at times that hides hers and others’ insecurities, and is a fascinating romp for the attentive audience member. I heard phrases in this film I could never have imagined, and yet enlightened me in the lives of the people in this film and my own life.

Juno and the people that surround her are those people you know who inspire a smile every time they walk into the room. Her parents are two of the most positive role models to find their way onto the big screen in quite some time. J.K. Simmons (“Spider-Man” trilogy) portrays her father Mac as a man who fears for the predicament his daughter finds herself in, but like so many bumps in life, faces it out of his unbiased love for her. He sees life with a great sense of humor as well, rare for a father in film.

Juno’s stepmother is another rarity in Hollywood filmmaking. She is not some evil replacement mom. Allison Janney (“The West Wing” TV series) is perfectly cast as Bren, who can be abrupt but again with a sense of humor to match her husband’s. The two make a believable couple with their similar outlooks on life, and she defends Juno with the same motherly ferocity as she does her own biological child. She may only be a nail technician, but don’t get on the wrong side of her in a match of wits.

One of the greatest laughs comes when Mac asks his daughter who the father is, as if he is preparing his revenge against the kid. When she tells him it is Paulie Bleeker, his reaction is “I didn’t think he had it in him.” Bleeker is a sweet kid. Michael Cera makes his second great impression of the year in the role following the summer’s surprise hit “Superbad”. I loved how with very little dialogue Cera was able to get me behind him one hundred percent. I wanted to scream at Juno to open her eyes and realize what a special guy he was. He is one of those kids that would just disappear into the background in high school, and who deserves to be in the foreground. The filmmakers wisely never place him there.

Juno decides she cannot go through with an abortion because the baby already has fingernails. She and her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby, “United 93”) find an ad in the Penny Saver for a couple looking to adopt a child. The Lorings, who placed the ad, are tactfully portrayed by Jennifer Garner (“The Kingdom”) and Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development” TV series) as upper crust yuppies. It was a relief that their storyline does not go in a more typical direction, but the filmmakers tease you with their story by showing everything about them from Juno’s point of view.

I’ve twice praised the filmmakers’ approach in the past two paragraphs when they deserve much more praise than that. The director is Jason Reitman—son of filmmaker Ivan Reitman—who adds this film to a growing list of smart cinematic accomplishments that include “Orange County” and the delightful “Thank You For Smoking”. Diablo Cody is a relative newcomer on the screenwriting front, but anyone with such a keen sense of human behavior and sharp ear for funny dialogue has long career ahead.

“Juno” comes at the end of a year that saw a revolution in comedies about teens and young adults and their transitions into adulthood. Movies like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” have been labeled “gross-out” sex comedies but have approached the subject with intelligence and biting wit. These comedies have been hard ‘R’ ratings. “Juno” belongs among this group of films, although it is slightly tamer than those two. But it comes with what some people might find to be a lenient ‘PG-13’ rating. For the first time this year, I find myself applauding the MPAA for their rating of a film. There is no reason why teenagers themselves shouldn’t watch a smart film about teenage sex and the ramifications of such activities. There is nothing your teenage children are going to learn here that they aren’t likely to learn themselves in school. This is an intelligent look at a real problem that teenagers may face that doesn’t ridicule it or run away from the seriousness of it, and yet it is still intensely funny.

Now that I’ve stood on my soapbox, I must return to the film itself and try to express what a wonderful cinematic experience it is. In some ways it is the greatest films that are the hardest for the critic to write about. I don’t possess the writing talent to do this movie justice, so you will have to trust me when I tell you that this is a must see movie. “Juno” is by far the best comedy of the year, and quite possibly the best film period.

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