Sunday, December 30, 2007

Paulie Bleeker Has It In Him

It’s true, what they all say. The first fifteen minutes of Jason Reitman’s sophomore feature, Juno, are nearly unendurable. Diablo Cody’s seriously overrated script seems to paint its flaws red and send them out on Main Street in a parade as the “quirkiness” factor of the film’s dialogue is cranked to eleven (yes, this quirkiness goes to eleven). Juno, the eponymous pregnant 17-year-old chats with store clerk Rollo (an embarrassingly pointless cameo performance by Rainn Wilson) and her BFF, Leah (Olivia Thirlby) about her recent pregnancy after chugging a ton of Sunny D (how specific and cutesy!) in order to pee and take various pregnancy tests. Phrases like “Swear to Blog?” and “fertile myrtle” and thrown around with irritating self-awareness in an attempt to attach the film to a burgeoning youth slang that holds some secret coolness, while, in actuality, nobody talks like Juno, Rollo, and Leah. The film starts off as an immature every-indie-film-ever impersonation. However, whether it was Cody reining in her screenplay or Reitman injecting more character into Cody’s words, the film miraculously takes off, mostly, because of excellent, excellent performances from the stellar cast.

There is perhaps no other film this year (maybe No Country For Old Men or Margot at the Wedding) that is more perfectly cast or more brilliantly acted. To start at the top, there is the incredible Michael Cera as Juno’s “part-time lover and full-time friend” Paulie Bleeker, a dorky, track team member whose mother disapproves of Juno’s “edginess.” Paulie is the father of Juno’s baby and Cera plays him magnificently. Cera has a particular acting style, also present in another gem from this year, Superbad, that replicates the efforts of an amateur actor. In no way is this to Cera’s discredit; in fact, Cera’s acting is utterly jaw-dropping in its complexity and effectiveness. Rather than hold to traditional acting standards, Cera’s work is almost transcendent of acting. He eliminates his professionalism, creating character’s that feel natural and real. Cera seems to be aware of the fact that all people, everywhere, are amateur actors, performing, playing parts, unsure, embarrassed, and leaky, allowing the interior to always accidentally leak through the exterior. Cera plays his parts with this vulnerability, without the confidence of a booming Al Pacino or Marlon Brando. He allows himself to fill the holes in his characters and his approach feels amateur and real, remarkably real. When Cera’s character tells the many-months pregnant Juno that she is beautiful, his language and tone aren’t mawkish or indulgent, they are scared, tentative, and subtle. Bleeker is an actor throughout Juno, hiding the untouched hysteria no doubt bubbling within regarding the fate of his child and his seemingly estranged lover, attempting to be strong and supportive. The acting employed by Bleeker is no doubt confessed when Juno states that he is “cool without even trying at all” and Paulie replies, somewhat relieved, “Actually, I try really hard.” Bleeker is a performer of a role, much like any person, and Cera, both in Juno and Superbad brilliantly capture his awkward attempt at being an actor. Another brilliant example of this type of performance can be found in yet another great supporting performance from this year, Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Affleck, like Cera, portrays an individual attempting to create and exude a particular person, although without any great skill. The magic of these two fantastic performances can be traced to this amateur approach that feels markedly different from the other actors surrounding Cera and Affleck, allowing them to stick out like unpolished, grainy, reality.

Second to Cera is his former fellow "Arrested Development" cast member, Jason Bateman. Bateman plays Mark Loring, husband to Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) and one-half of the couple that seeks to adopt Juno’s accidental baby. Bateman carries an immense sense of disappointment and disillusionment in Mark, a former rock ‘n’ roller turned commercial jingly composer, who grows increasingly more distant from his wife as the weight of the responsibility of fatherhood encroaches on his dissipating dreams of artistic success and personal fulfillment. Bonding with Juno over some rather obscure common interests (old horror films and hipster indie music), Mark finds himself caught up in an inconvenient nearly-romantic relationship with her, resulting is some rather dicey sexual tension that left me, and most of the audience squirming, revealing a dark, startlingly plausible character that is played calmly and convincingly by Bateman. Garner, playing Bateman’s child-obsessed, assumedly infertile wife, Vanessa, is also rather impressive, although perhaps weaker than the other actors in the film.

J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are also remarkable as Juno’s heartwarmingly supportive parents, Mac and Brenda. While both have their distinct idiosyncrasies, seemingly inherent in Cody’s world, they form a very plausible duo, as Juno’s father and stepmother, and their wisdom is incredibly useful and delivered without sentimentality or cynicism. They are so convincing that it’s easy to lose them amongst all of the other characters, as they simply fill their parts to just the right amount, being so solid that nothing is exaggerated or forgotten. The much-discussed Ellen Page as Juno, seems a little iffy to me. While sometimes being spot on, she often approaches hyperbole with her whiz-kid smart-aleck comments and too perfect delivery. Admittedly, this could be a problem with Cody’s script. Page’s acting approach and Cody’s words no collude in creating a nearly unapproachable character for much of the film. However, Page does shine in a few brilliant scenes, including the one in which she admits her love for Paulie.

While Reitman’s direction is certainly adequate and often impressive, it really takes a bake seat to the quality acting in Juno, which rescues the film from a rather spotty script. If anything, Juno is essential because of Michael Cera’s masterful supporting performance and for the fuzzy residue it leaves in the viewer’s chest as the credits roll. Juno will no doubt be quoted and quoted by kids seeking to enhance their “unique” lingo, but I’m sure none of them will say “wizard” with the stunning conviction of Michael Cera.

by Brandon Colvin

6 comments: said...

good review.. haven't seen the film but reading this makes me want to check it out... Your comments on the quirkyness & acting style apeal to the type of movies I enjoy .. where this movie can be cool without even trying.. or maybe it did try really hard.. anyway its on my list thanks for the good review -informative & entertaining

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the initial quirky-cool dialogue left me squirming, but the film definitely comes around. Though I will say the dork in me was irked to hear two references botched. "10,000 Leagues Under the Sea"? "ThunderCATS are go"? Come on Juno, you're better than that. (The latter might just be intended as quirky Juno-humor, but it's not funny so I'd rather view it as a mistake in the script.)

PS-Brandon, I bet you loved the shot at Sonic Youth. Burned.

Anonymous said...

Wizard, Brandon.
Mel and I saw this the other day in San Antonio and left emotional, awash with feelings of the loss of innocence of adolescence, as well as the joy of falling in love and being young.
I thought Cera and Ellen Page made the picture. They were both amazing!

Brandon Colvin said...

The Sonic Youth quip really hurt. I must say that I strongly identified with Bateman's character in the film in no small part due to his love of Sonic Youth. What baffles me is how a Sonic Youth fan would prefer Gibson over Fender. You can't make Sonic Youth noises with a Gibson.

Jacob, I too had slight issues with those errors, but I think they might be incorrect to reflect how people screw up names and phrases in real life. I don't think a script could get through having errors like that in it. Maybe I'm just optimistic about the literacy of a former stripper though.

Hope San Antonio is treating you well, Emmett.

Anonymous said...

Watched this last night with reservations, thinking this would be about cloying, ingratiating, dim-witted quirk-fest ala Little Miss Sunshine, but I was pleasantly surprised with how well-written and emotionally satisfying the film was. Ellen Page, in particular, really carried that film with not only her snark but some serious acting gravitas as well. A very winning combination of wit and soul.

While I still cannot really comprehend placing this at the very top of any Year End list (especially in such a competitive year), I did find myself charmed and tickled pink by the end of it all. Much better than the silly backlash would indicate.

Anonymous said...

My work peps are reeking plus buzz about the film. I haven't gotten a chance to see it, yet. My childcare has returned to college so I limited to the boob tube. Keep up the insightful reviews, I can always rent...