Few filmmakers experienced quite as precipitous a drop as Jason Reitman. He went from back-to-back Best Director nominations to a pair of films that were universally panned (with, it’s worth noting, one compromised but ambition feature in between). Through it all, he’s at least had the live reads, regular events that brought together impressive groups of actors to offer one-time-only, live stage performances of some truly beloved screenplays. Though the event is officially retired as an ongoing concern, Reitman is clearly keeping it in his back pocket, ready to throw on the table when the moment is right, such as a live reading of the screenplay for his breakthrough film, Juno, with proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. While Juno has — and has always had — its detractors, I still think its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. And the prospect of Ellen Page returning ten years later to the role in which she spun such acting wizardry is enough to make me long for a ticket. This is the review I wrote when Juno was released.
Debuting screenwriter Diablo Cody spends the first ten or fifteen minutes of Juno trying ever so desperately to prove herself as a someone with a distinctive voice–the film is rife with hyper-stylized dialogue and boasts an immediate sardonic distance from it’s small-town Midwestern setting. Every word uttered by every character seems to reach for some level of arch distinctiveness. Luckily, after that somewhat anxious beginning, the script settles down and the remainder proves decisively that Cody does indeed have a unique voice and it’s worthy of attention. In other words, after some initial squirming, I sort of loved Juno.
The film is a comedy about teen pregnancy, pointed in its consideration of cavalier youth and the neediness of the classes above and deeply sympathetic to most every character that edges onto the screen. It is a movie with unexpected reservoirs of hope and happiness, finding some measure of contentment in its own worried cynicism. It shows how difficult it is for people to come together thereby enhancing its moments when honest, unadorned connections happen. Cody creates indelible characters and puts them forth on perilous emotional routes.
It’s Cody’s name that most often invoked when talking about the film, making her perhaps the most discussed Oscar-bound scribe since two dopey friends from Boston wrote themselves a couple parts. Maybe it’s because her backstory as a filmmaker is more compelling than that of the director, which boils down to “they’re letting the kid of the guy who directed Ghostbusters make movies now,” but it’s worth noting that Juno represents a major step forward for Jason Reitman as a director since his debut, 2005’s Thank You For Smoking. While that film was muddled, flailing around looking for a consistent tone to call it’s own, Juno is assured and compact, downright thrilling in its thoughtful humor and barbed asides.
Reitman has seemingly also found a better approach to working with his actors and helping to mold his performance. Smoking was often marred by uneven, disjointed work among its cast. Juno boasts tremendous work all around, led by the practical paternal attention of J.K. Simmons and the wondrous work of Ellen Page in the title role. Page was deeply impressive in last year’s Hard Candy. Here she takes a complicated band of emotions, often disguised by mordant wit, and portrays it all with great care and crackling invention. She herself goes a long way towards making the jigsaw words of Cody’s script into something firm and believable.
In the end, no matter the stumbles, the film is warm and winning. And, in the end, the film has one of the best endings of the year.