I wanted to love Juno. You don’t see that many movies with a young female protagonist, particularly one who isn’t monomaniacally obsessed with boys, and this one has such an appealing cast, such promise. I wanted to love it, and I didn’t. Even setting aside the hype, Juno is a disappointment.
Ellen Page (who so brilliantly unnerved me in the previews for Hard Candy that I couldn’t bring myself to actually see it) plays teenage Juno MacGuff, whose casual exercise in mutual virginity-loss with her friend Paulie Bleeker (the adorable Michael Cera of Arrested Development) results in a highly unplanned pregnancy. Juno’s initial instinct is to abort, but after panicking at a local clinic for reasons never fully articulated, she decides to carry the pregnancy to term instead and give the baby up for adoption to a well-to-do infertile couple, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner)
Debut screenwriter Diablo Cody has gotten a great deal of acclaim for the trendily arch dialogue she provides for Juno, and I would be lying if I claimed not to have found it funny. I can even relate to Juno’s wry detachment, her tendency to avoid dealing with emotion directly by approaching her problems ironically, not as a joke, exactly, but as an intellectual or artistic exercise, a story happening to someone else. And yet, for every line that feels so true, another falls flat, trying way too hard, and still another is actively wrong, a line that betrays the character, that exists only for a cheap, sardonic snicker.
The worst such moment, for example, comes in the initial meeting between Juno and the Lorings. Juno makes wisecracks through the entire scene, which works for her character, but at one point, when elaborating on the unpleasantries of pregnancy, she grins and tells Vanessa Loring that Vanessa must be glad that Juno is the pregnant one. Already tense, Vanessa flinches as though she has been slapped, and she has, damn it, but Juno sails on, oblivious. I don’t care how narcissistic Juno is supposed to be. To make that comment in that situation and not even realize after the fact how grossly inappropriate it was, you would have to be cruel or stupid or both, and Juno is supposed to be neither. The line isn’t organic. It’s a lazy writer’s gag (see, it’s ironic because, actually, Vanessa desperately wants to be pregnant and Juno doesn’t—ha ha ha!), and it destroys that particular scene.
That kind of tawdry “comedy” crops up far more often that it should in Juno. I recognize that this kind of humor, balancing satire and genuine emotion, must be incredibly difficult to write, but merely attempting it doesn’t make Cody successful. Her screenplay shows promise, certainly, but it relies heavily on her talented cast to breathe life into some of the too-precious dialogue.
But despite Page’s best efforts (which truly are extraordinary—my praise for her is unqualified), Juno’s character arc never feels true-to-life. I could diagram it out on paper—it should work—and yet one scene never flows naturally into the next. Her big revelation about Life and Love and All That feels abrupt and unconvincing, and that’s due to poor plotting and possibly poor editing, not poor acting.
I should have loved Juno’s story. I, too, was a young woman most comfortable inside my own head. I, too, was capable of revealing entirely Too Much Information to anyone, provided I could intellectualize it with cheerful aloofness, and I, too, had to mature into being able to express my feelings without mentally adding air quotes. (Who am I kidding? This paragraph reveals I’m still working on that, and nothing here should have been expressed in the past tense.) But Juno tells that story of maturation with only intermittent success.
The real irony is that the only truly moving human story is not Juno’s but Vanessa’s. I’ll give credit Cody credit for this, at least: At first, it appears that Vanessa will embody the familiar misogynist caricature of the killjoy wife, but Cody complicates this, turning Vanessa into a deeply sympathetic character and revealing that the Lorings’ problems cannot be so glibly laid at her door. The movie respects Vanessa’s fundamental yearning for a child (a scene in which she and a big-bellied Juno run into each other at the mall is a heartbreaking standout), and Garner delivers a beautiful performance, humanizing what could have been a thankless role into a moving depiction of a determined woman doing her best with a bad hand of cards.
I suspect that Vanessa might be the best-drawn character in part because she isn’t saddled with nearly so much self-conscious, writerly dialogue. Cody wasn’t trying quite so damn hard with her, and so she escapes as a satiric yet human creation. The rest of the screenplay, though, is overpacked with relentless too-clever, too-cool humor. It’s all the same from character to character, so it doesn’t tell us much about them as individuals. Depressingly, Cody’s screenplay has garnered attention not because it’s particularly good but because it’s particularly showy. But in the end, in the immortal words of Gertrude Stein, there isn’t any there there.