The hype machine is chugging along at full speed for “Juno,” and it’s amazing what a little festival attention can do. A well-timed Telluride premiere, to an already almost legendarily appreciative audience, was soon followed by Toronto and Austin unveilings, all of which led award pundits and Entertainment Weekly columnists to mark it as a Serious Oscar Contender. Fox Searchlight, who proved irritably savvy when it came to promoting its surprise Academy magnet “Little Miss Sunshine” last year, now can position “Juno” as the designated underdog of choice — that “little” movie that seemingly came out of nowhere, that was directed by that guy who had that buzzy debut “Thank You for Smoking,” and, did you hear, was written by that ex-stripper, one-time phone-sex operator, and all-around New Voice in Cinema, Diablo Cody. Shrewd marketing, and Cody’s tantalizing, oft trotted-out bio, may make “Juno” the flavor of the season, yet, taking a step back from the hype, it’s hard not to feel like this aggressively clever, ultimately sentimental high-school comedy is less true seasonal counter-programming than just another Hollywood wolf in indie sheep clothing.
Even in its opening minutes, the film is as alarmingly self-satisfied as its protagonist, the quippy, ostensibly anti-establishment (because she likes Iggy Pop and not Evanescence?) sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), introduced swigging a heavy jug of Sunny Delight and rhapsodizing over a discarded old chair. Soon enough, Jason Reitman segues into an animated, comix-like opening credit sequence, remarkably inapt in retrospect when one realizes how un-comic book the movie ultimately is. Perhaps “Juno” fancies itself as kin to Terry Zwigoff‘s superior “Ghost World,” in which the similarly caustic high-schooler Enid glared at the suburban drudgery around her with both fascination and disgust. Genuinely angry and wistful, “Ghost World” allows each of its zingers to hit with hurricane force, only to revel in the silence and self-loathing afterward. Here, Juno, always ready with a wicked retort, and a bag of slang so heavy it could crush an elephant (and so dated it spoils on utterance: “How about some tuneage?” she asks before popping in a CD), is so obviously a shoot-from-the-hip surrogate for screenwriter Cody that it’s hard to connect with her: every line sounds not only clearly written but also smugly self-regarding.
However, people will tell you that “Juno”‘s real topic isn’t language, but teenage pregnancy, which would be valid if the film had any true interest in the subject. After Juno is impregnated by Bleeker (dork du jour Michael Cera, whose titmouse-tiny comic delivery is still hilariously on point, though after a series of identical performances he may have to expand his repertoire sooner than later), she decides to give the baby up for adoption to couple Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), barren bourgeois types sketched so broadly that Reitman has them staring center frame at two swatches of paint, mulling over identical yellow colors for the nursery: “Custard or Cheesecake?” Yet Mark’s demoralizing sweaters and movie-ish profession of writing TV jingles masks a childish desire to leave the prefab upper-middle-class suburbs for a career as a rocker. Juno’s interest in the Lorings makes for the only tense passages in the film, yet ultimately Cody doesn’t delve far enough into them, painting their conflicts in basic broad classist strokes.
For all its posturing as a take-no-guff whippersnapper, “Juno” is finally a square, predictable crowd-pleaser, timid on politics and reaffirming on family. Juno is identified as oddball and independent (she obnoxiously uses pipes as affectations and enjoys mentioning her plastic hamburger phone, and Bleeker’s mom pointedly says, as if to confirm it for the audience, “She’s just . . . different”), but she’s not much more interesting than your average big-screen high-schooler, and when she has questions about life and love, she goes to wise papa (JK Simmons), “Brady Bunch”-style. Is this seriously supposed to be different from Hollywood teen movies simply because it’s not about cheerleaders? Page, a compelling presence in the otherwise execrable “Hard Candy,” invests her character with oodles of attitude, but when it’s time to show her softer side, Reitman frames her in obvious Movie Moments, and betrays the naturalism this talented actress could have brought.
In fact, there’s little room for anything spontaneous at all here; it’s endlessly schematic, from its post-Wes Anderson (and post-“Napoleon Dynamite,” and post-“Rocket Science,” etc.) fetishizing of goofy objects (orange tic tacs! yellow sweatbands!) to its rattling off of Diablo Cody’s favorite things (The Stooges! Herschell Gordon Lewis!), to its Belle & Sebastian and Moldy Peaches interludes and twee, closing guitar sing-along. This final moment brings to mind a much more honest movie that Fox Searchlight has savvily marketed to major success: yet a film as delightful, odd, and innocent as “Once” doesn’t come along very often. Something like “Juno” seems to open every other week.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]