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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jason Reitman's JUNO

Juno poster

Now that the Oscar nominations have announced, I've been trying my best to catch all films nominated in the Best Picture category via all means since not all are screened in Malaysia.

Following are the five Best Picture nominees:


I saw Michael Clayton in Taiwan last September, and Atonement last month. And I managed to catch JUNO last week.

JUNO is the only comedy nominated in the category and it's always Oscar tradition over the years to nominate a well-received indie comedy (LOST IN TRANSLATION in 2003, SIDEWAYS in 2004, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE last year) even though the chances of them winning have always been slim.

I'll copy and paste the synopsis from the film, skip the following paragraph if you want to know as little about the film as possible.

Juno (Ellen Page) is a Mid-Western highschooler, who decides one day, out of boredom or curiosity, to have sex with her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), a member of her school's track team. She likes him well enough, but isn't hung up on him. This one time encounter results in Juno's pregnancy. She and her best friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) decide to take control of the situation by browsing for prospective adoptive parents in the local Pennysaver newspaper, and Juno settles on seemingly the perfect, affluent couple Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) who is desperate to have a child. Junos sensitive father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) are very supportive of her and help Juno with her decision to give the baby up for adoption. Juno and her father check out Mark and Vanessa Loring to see if they are the right couple. As time moves closer to having the baby, Juno grows more into a woman, yet she is still a teenager with all the same problems and a few more.

Currently doing some damage in the US box-office (it's the only nominated film to make 100 million dollars) and starting to generate some accusations of being overhyped and overrated, many, including my friend Sebastian, have questioned whether Juno deserves the nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (for Jason Reitman), Best Actress (for Ellen Page) and Best Original Screenplay (for Diablo Cody)?

It's all subjective, many believe that a film like Zodiac and its director David Fincher would be more deserving of the Best Picture and Best Director nominations instead of Juno and director Jason Reitman, I won't argue with that since I think Zodiac is a great film, but I don't think Juno does not deserve these nominations.

Ellen Page and Michael Cera in JunoBeing 'merely' a crowd-pleasing comedy, a superficial assessment will immediately point out that JUNO is not profound enough, or 'deep' enough, or possess the supreme technical filmmaking craftsmanship to be in the running for 2007's finest film.

So it may not seem to have the timelessness of the other nominees (even Michael Clayton is regarded as a throwback to legal thrillers of the 70s despite its modern settings) For me, its hipness and humour show that the film is a product of our time, reflecting contemporary society and ideals, dealing with issues like teenage pregnancy, abortion, adoption and handling a marriage, among others. With all that said, it's really just a simple coming-of-age tale and a teenage romantic comedy.

In our discussion of the film, Sebastian had mentioned that in comparison to his debut film, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO felt like a student film from Jason Reitman. It's not as slick-looking as THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, but that doesn't mean that by exercising more restraint or being more understated, the direction is bad.

"Just because it is more understated doesn't make it the best." was Sebastian's opinion of Jason Reitman's direction in JUNO. On the contrary, I find it more impressive that the director knew when to practice restraint and let the story and characters take centerstage, for me, it's really not about imposing a trademark director style just to prove one is an awesome director, but choosing the best methods to tell the story.

Performances from the cast were uniformly great, I don't think anyone is complaining about Ellen Page's BEST ACTRESS nomination as the wisecracking and quirky Juno Macguff. Characterization and character development just seem to be something often overlooked in films, JUNO is interesting to me because it made me change my perception and feelings towards a character within a brief running time of 96 minutes.

The character arcs are often authentic instead of feeling forced. I won't give too much away, but one character who seemed like wimpy and pathetic loser turned out to be such a nice and genuine person that one can't help but feel for him towards the end. One character is cool and likable, another one seems domineering and way too uptight, naturally the former seems much more appealing, yet certain plot developments reverse my perception of the two, and suddenly, I sympathize more with the latter than the former. A lesser film by a lesser director would have played on stereotypes or caricatural portrayals. Not in Juno. Yes, it's definitely good writing, but it IS the director's duty to transfer what was written on paper to the screen. It is a director's job to know when is too much, and when is too little. The great performances in JUNO happened because of his direction, not in spite of his direction.

So no, I don't think Jason Reitman's direction was too shabby here. Not any Tom, Dick and Harry could do what he did. (For example, one of my biggest gripes about the local film JARUM HALUS, by the first-time filmmaker Mark Tan, had been the inconsistent characterization of Christien New's Daniel Oh character, when a guy shifted from a sweet romantic noble dude to an abusive asshole in just one scene, I was unconvinced and ended up feeling that the supposed tragedy of that Othello adaptation has been diminished. But I'll leave that for another review, if I need to.)

Anyway, to me, JUNO worked because it's so funny, original and heartwarming. It's also surprisingly touching. Seriously can't think of a better ending for the film. I thought it lived up to its hype, matching my expectations, and sometimes even surpassing them.

JUNO trailer

BTW: It's interesting to see Michael Cera and Patrick Bateman in the same movie after the much-missed TV series ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was cancelled. Though their characters never appeared in the same scene together. Here are some videos of them talking about JUNO, funny stuff. WATCH THEM ALL!

P. S. I think Jennifer Garner's performance in JUNO is her film career best... I rank it ahead of 13 GOING ON 30 and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.