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.