08 February, 2008

Word of Mouth: "Juno"

The nine week wait for this movie to open seemed like nine months and so it is inevitable that it would fail to live up to all that expectation. It opened on a limited number of screens but soon went wide and passed the totemic 100 million dollar mark. It is a great movie with some great moments. But that’s about it.

Little Miss Sunshine, last year’s sole comedy in the Oscars’ best picture category, lost out to The Departed wrongly because it was a positive comedy and not a dour drama - despite my campaigning. (It’s as if the voters of the Academy just completely ignored my blog!) This year, a much less popular drama may win out again over a comedy but this time it would not be an injustice at all.

Much has been made of the fact that Cody didn’t read any screenwriting books or take any courses. However she says herself that she has learned from watching movies, so don’t expect anything too unconventional or surprising here.

The advantage with Cody coming at it completely fresh is that we get her undiluted original voice and there are some brilliant choices in the movie I wonder if she would have made if worrying about paradigms or whether the act breaks fall on the right page.

The disadvantages are things like Juno’s voice over, which can be used to great effect but is used here only to paper over cracks in the story and is pretty annoying. And Cody worrying about character arcs might have been a good thing.

It’s actually the original characters and relationships that raise this so high above the first-time screenwriter spec script slush pile. The step-mom character is probably the best to look at for that. There is conflict between her and Juno but not the usual tired step-mom cliché conflicts. What I like is that there is some depth to all of the characters even the minor ones in it for only a few minutes. Or rather, you don’t get the sense that they are there just to fulfil a story function.

Cody’s dialogue is very good and the much discussed hipster slang won’t be new to anyone with a mere shallow immersion in pop-culture. However, there are times when the dialogue seems quirky for quirky’s sake. Some lines in the conversation between her and the shopkeeper at the beginning of the movie, for instance, are just hella silly.

The Juno character is refreshing and original and kick ass which is rare for a female lead character – even female lead characters are rare. But I found her hard to like and her arc is wonky. The problem might be because Cody loves her so much and finds it hard to have anyone challenge the sarky self-interested persona or even explain it beyond 'she's a cool teen and that's what they're like'.

The main plot regarding the pregnancy and the baby works fine. The whole ‘meet the adoptive parents’ and the relationships and issues involved works very well and is emotionally involving. Vanessa, the uptight yuppie adoptive mom-to-be, was the character I cared about the most by the end. A triumph of Cody’s non-judgemental, and realistic approach to characterisation.

Juno's personal sub-plot, however, works less well emotionally and is resolved out of nothing. It gives us a great feel-good ending but it didn’t feel earned enough to me. The Juno character does a complete flip from heartbreaker to sweetheart with very little motivation. Although by that time the film will have earned enough goodwill for most people to overlook it or just not care.

Reading the screenplay after seeing the film is recommended. There were several cuts and changes done on set by Cody herself or by the actors to make it sound right or in the editing suite. Working out why this happened was useful to me.

The first few minutes are annoying and self-consciously quirky (including the hamburger phone bit which is at least improved on in the film from the script) but don’t walk out early as it settles down and by the end you will be moved, if not by a lot then by a little.

I have no clue if this true but it felt like the script improved as she found the right tone and balance but she didn't go back and re-write those weaker earlier pages done when she was still finding her feet.

Juno is recommended as it’s funny and clever but lower your expectations from the hype.

Official site
Diablo Cody interviews


potdoll said...

i didn't think it was all that either. felt fresh for treating teenage pregnancy as a comedy though.

Robin Kelly said...

I was hoping I wasn't the only one, Pots ;-)

I didn't think to mention the fresh treatment of the subject matter when obviously that's an important part of its success.