Despite my initial disinterest, I went to see Jason Reitman’s Juno last night. Turns out my instincts were right and Juno is a formulaic, unfunny attempt to capitalize on the “indie film” genre and aesthetic. Before you discount me as a cynic, please keep in mind that I have thoroughly enjoyed several other films that might be lumped into this category, such as Thumbsucker, Little Miss Sunshine and The Squid and the Whale. There is a trend lately, for characters to be defined entirely by their eccentricities, forgoing depth for slang and outfits. Perhaps Wes Anderson is to blame for this, but despite what others may argue, I maintain that while his films have perhaps become excessively stylized, his characters are always psychologically complex. Juno’s best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) dons a maroon and yellow jogging outfit complete with sweatbands that are at once reminiscent of Richie Tenebaum and Napoleon Dynamite. His track team runs through frame after frame, becoming a somewhat charming motif of the film.
Juno, however, is merely a windup doll of sarcasm and pop-culture references, much like Rory Gilmore on the now defunct WB series the Gilmore Girls. While that kind of spitfire dialogue might be enough to sustain a series, it makes for a weak centerpiece of a film. It is hard to say if Juno’s character develops over the course of the film except for the realization that she is in love with her best friend and the father of her child. The would-be mother of Juno’s baby, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is too uptight and annoying for the audience to care when she decides to go it alone as a single mom. The film focuses too much attention on the bizarre, oedipal relationship between Juno and Vanessa’s husband, Mark (Jason Bateman) which never develops past the High Fidelity idiom “It’s not what you are like, it’s what you like.” The end of the film hastily tries to highlight some kind of bond between Juno and Vanessa—a bond that was not previously developing. When Vanessa frames a note from Juno (“If you’re still in, I’m still in”) in lieu of a family photo on the nursery wall, the message falls flat. Female independence? Determination? The power of motherhood? It’s too contrived for me to care.
Of course, something must be said about the soundtrack, which most prominently features tracks from Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches. Just like the film seems to be proud of its self for knowing that “kids these days” call penises and vaginas “junk” and “vag”, it also seems proud to know “what the kids are listening to” except that most of these songs came out 5-10 years ago. I am a fan of soundtracks that foreground pop songs, (e.g. The Graduate) however, even when the songs are prominent, they must serve the greater purpose. In Juno, the soundtrack merely restates the obvious sentiments of the scene: “we like each other,” or, “I’m bummed.” If you want another example of a film that foolishly forgrounds its lame soundtrack, take a look at Gardenstate. I threw up in my mouth a little when Natalie Portman told Zack Braff that the listening to New Slang by the Shins would change his life. I kind of like that song, but still--that band cannot change a damn thing.
What often makes films of this genre successful is the gracefully combining of life’s many humiliations with the humor and insight that come from living on the fringe. Juno is devoid of this essential contrast and winds up being mildly entertaining and not all that memorable.