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One-Note Wonder: Juno

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One-Note Wonder: Juno

Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody has described herself as a “naked Margaret Mead,” a cultural anthropologist who for years studied the rites and rituals of the stripper tribe in lieu of the nine-to-five grind. It’s a great line and a quite telling one, for this writer’s scientific approach to life is precisely why Juno ultimately fails. Watching the tale of the eponymous heroine (Ellen Page) navigating an unplanned teenage pregnancy from conception to adoption, I couldn’t help but think Cody was still channeling Margaret Mead through her quirky dialogue. Like Mead, Cody doesn’t form an emotional connection with her subjects. Juno is a character to be studied intellectually, not felt as flesh-and-blood. Page does her best to fill in Juno with her own heart and soul, but it’s like trying to breathe life into a blow up doll. Juno’s waist expands, but her depth does not.

Perhaps the film in the hands of an older, more seasoned director with an eye for character (like Todd Field—or even Terry Zwigoff whose Ghost World girls’ oddities felt genuine) could have added the much needed gravitas to ground Cody’s sharp comedy, to make it stick. But Cody, a first-time screenwriter lacking in (emotional) life experience, was stuck with Jason Reitman, a director with an over-reliance on two-shots and vivid colors, an ear for distracting soundtracks and not much more depth than Cody. Their similarities cancel each other out. What we’re left with is loads of witty dialogue and little substance, like the best TV sitcom. (Juno might have worked better as an HBO pilot.)

For the dialogue is good—very good. When Juno learns that the wanna-be dad Mark, played by Jason Bateman, is a composer she cries, “No, shit! Like Johann Brahms?” “No, more commercial stuff,” he replies. “Like what?” Beat. “Commercials.” This is where Juno lives up to its hype, in the comic timing of the actors, not the showy dialogue of the writer. Another example, “Did you hear Juno MacGuff is pregnant?” a track teammate asks Michael Cera’s biological father Paulie. “Yeah.” “Did you hear it’s yours?” You can almost see Sheila Nevins drooling in her seat. It’s why Jennifer Garner as the prospective mother Vanessa and Jason Bateman as her husband come across as the real thing. They know how to do TV, how to make those faux-deep crocodile tears seem meaningful (even in the midst of absurd, nonsensical plot twists like the one involving Mark and Juno—I’m still trying to figure out how he went from harmless immature hubby to sadistic bastard without the slightest foreshadowing).

In fact, the banter is so catchy that you almost forget the unfortunate truth that everyone sounds like Juno, from the teenage, abortion clinic receptionist (“We need to know about every sore and every score”) to the prospective adoptive father Mark (“It’s not like the baby’s going to come storming in here demanding dessert-colored walls”). There is absolutely no delineation between most of the characters (the exception being the excellent Michael Cera and Jennifer Garner, both actors relying on eyes more than words). Nearly everyone else is playing the one, high Juno note so loud that it drowns out any dubious thoughts the audience may have. We’re so overwhelmed with snappy lines machine-gunned at us for an hour-and-a-half that we’re almost willing to overlook the ultrasound scene in which Juno’s stepmother lashes out at the technician in Juno-speak, insinuating that the pseudo-doctor is no more qualified than her five-year-old daughter who isn’t the “brightest bulb in the tanning bed.” At one point Juno distressed by her bulge declares, “I’m a planet.” It’s true. She’s a planet that every character revolves around, gets sucked into and becomes. Even Reitman gets caught up in Juno-speed, cutting from black-and-white stills of the Stooges, Patti Smith and The Runaways in time to the character’s name-dropping. Les Paul, Sonic Youth, Dario Argento—the list of shout-outs goes on and on. From orange Tic-Tacs to a phone in the shape of a hamburger, it all adds up to overkill. The film operates at the saturation point for its entire running time, the impact of important scenes diluted and finally lost. There’s simply no place left to go. When everything is “shocking,” nothing is. Only at the end, when the volume is finally brought down does the film actually work as a film and not merely as an acting/writing showcase.

Which is precisely the difference between Juno and the film it most aspires to be—this year’s Little Miss Sunshine. But Little Miss Sunshine succeeded because every single character was specific, with his or her own way of speaking, of body language and being. Greg Kinnear’s lines were nothing like Steve Carell’s or Alan Arkin’s. That was the beauty in listening to its dialogue. Writer Michael Arndt invested in a chorus of distinct voices to create that tight script while directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris served as skilled symphony directors, following rhythm, the organic ebb and flow. Little Miss Sunshine consisted of several layers, with characters able to juggle more than one emotion at a time, as people do. Juno, in contrast, alternates between laughter and tears but never simultaneously. One gets the sense that Cody didn’t so much birth Juno as invent her as she invented herself (Diablo Cody being a pen name). But one will always be less vested in an invention. When Juno admits she doesn’t really know what “kind of girl” she is, it’s a rare moment that rings both heartfelt and true.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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