There were two things I kept hearing about the movie Juno before I saw it: that you have to squirm through the first ten-fifteen minutes before you give up and get into it, and that its screenwriter Diablo Cody used to be a stripper.
The two things actually have something to do with each other, I think, but first let's get the good news out of the way: already in danger of being over-hyped into an inevitable backlash, Juno really is a cool and worthy movie, wonderfully subversive at moments, funny and poignant and sharply well-directed, with a crackerjack ensemble cast. The justly celebrated Ms. Cody has worked a few sneaky tweaks into her time-honored genre (the coming-of-age teen movie) and she is definitely a talent to watch. I'm just glad she's gotten this one out of her system.
Any savvy wannabe screenwriter of the 2000s has learned the drill by now: that first spec script has got to wow 'em, and it doesn't hurt to have a strong, nicely-promotable personality to back it up. Cody knew what she was doing when she came up with her memorable pen-name, and having already successfully exploited her former livelihood in a memoir called Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, she obviously knew that her bio would earn her notice in say, Entertainment Weekly (where the post-Juno Cody has gotten a gig as a regular columnist).
Hey, I'm down with that; one must -- and should -- use what one's got to get what one wants. No, the thing that bugs me about Juno has to do with a classic case of First-Time Talent-itis. Its writer is so hellbent on impressing us with her wit, right out of the gate, that she nearly sends us up the aisle and out of the theater.
Juno is blessed and cursed with what I'd call Great Dialogue For People Who Don't Know What Great Dialogue Is. The lines spoken on screen are so stylistically in-your-face that they call undue attention to themselves. You can't suspend your disbelief and simply get caught up in the story because the screenwriter is getting in the way; you're forced to be conscious of the writing, and thus Cody has broken a cardinal rule of the game: the lines, anything but natural, are constantly sounding written.
Cody might justify her choice by saying it's based in character: 16 year-old Juno's lines have the accurately self-conscious ring of the snarky precocious misfit gal she is. But sorry -- everybody in the movie is occasionally prone to arch witticisms that seem parsed in neon, so such a rationalization won't wash. In this, Cody has fallen prone to what I call the Look Ma, No Hands! school of writing. You can hear the screenwriter cheerleading her own dialogue; I could almost see subtitles coming up underneath especially choice bits of banter: Isn't this brilliant? Now here comes another line I love!
And of course, for many folks, the "you can't possibly miss the smart writing here" of it all is exactly what makes them think, great dialogue! It's the same syndrome that afflicts Best Acting Oscars, all too often given to the showiest performances; if a star has put on prosthetics (see Nicole Kidman's fake nose in The Hours) or is grandstanding disability (two words: Rain Man), it must be great acting!
Myself, I'm more a fan of the grace of invisibility, or what critic Manny Farber termed Termite Art: work that burrows beneath the surface and isn't so much seen or heard in a given piece, but felt. My favorite movie dialogue is so convincing, no matter how subtly stylized, that it sounds like real people talking, like it's what these people would say. You find it in James Brooks or Cameron Crowe at their best; it was true of Tony Gilroy's work this year in Michael Clayton. And as any seasoned screenwriter will tell you, it's a lot harder to do. The great lines don't stick out from a scene, but resonate like depth charges: it's only when you study the work later that you realize how well-crafted it is.
Yet honestly, I come here not to diss Diablo, but to praise her. Ironically it's when she's doing her more invisible graceful work that she truly shines: the expectations-misdirect she pulls off by developing the characterization of Jennifer Garner's wannabe-mom in surprising, deeply affecting ways, the fantastic scene she gifts lead Ellen Page with, when she lets Juno, pulling her van to the side of the road in the midst of crisis, go through an entire aria of emotional beats without a single word spoken. There are many other beautifully conceived character-driven moments to savor.
In this, Cody has been more than ably assisted by her director. I tagged Jason Reitman as a major up-and-comer when I saw Thank You For Smoking, and his chops are getting appreciably stronger. His cinematic palette here is tasty and his way with actors savvy; Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons are pitch-perfect, sidekick Olivia Thirlby a newcomer to watch.
Juno is also a legit romantic comedy (it's a hybrid: coming-of-age/teen rom-com) and one of its most impressive attributes, on this level, is how much Cody has managed to deliver with not much at all; the central romantic relationship is a triumph of less-is-more. The way-underplayed, seemingly barely-there romance between Juno and Paulie Bleeker sneaks up on the movie from its sidelines, and our unlikely romantic lead, a perfectly cast Michael Cera (Superbad), is instantly lovable. He has no Big Scenes the Academy Will Remember, yet within an improbably small amount of screen time, he's the guy you keep wanting to hang out with; he's actually the gentle but rock-solid soul of the movie.
So while it's true that the top of Juno may prove a struggle, once you settle into the stylization, the rewards are plentiful. What I wish for Diablo Cody is that, now that she's done her showing off, she can cease pushing so hard. She's earned the security to relax more in her work, and I'm way looking forward to what she does next. Topping Juno, already a critic's fave and an audience-pleaser, will be her tacit challenge. And fellow screenwriters, don't we all wish we had such problems?
Meanwhile, the 3rd Annual Asta Awards for the best in romantic comedy will be posted here this coming weekend. What earned your votes for 2007's most winning cute meets, comedic set pieces and erotic dance moves, et al? Living Rom-Com wants to know.