Film Reviews for 12-19-2007

‘Juno’ no ‘Sunshine’

Starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Olivia Thirlby, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman.
Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated PG-13; 1:31. LEO
Report Card: B+)

I hate advertising. The marketing for “Juno,” a film about a 16-year-old girl and her decision to give her child to an adoptive family, is trying really hard to paint it as this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine” or as a Wes Anderson-esque quirk-a-thon, and that’s a mistake. High-strung comedies about dysfunctional families are what people have come to expect, I suppose.

For this reason, “Juno” scared me with its opening crawl — a painted, surrealist interpretation of Juno’s (Ellen Page) walk to the convenience store to pick up a third pregnancy test that felt tacky in light of the situation. And the dialogue in the initial 10 minutes had me biting my lip, as it tried too hard to be hip; even the convenience store clerk (Rainn Wilson) yuks it up, throwing slang around when English would have sufficed. Who actually uses a word like “home-skillet,” anyway?

Soon enough, a new film emerges, and I am happy to report that “Juno” fits in the same category of family drama as the TV show “Roseanne.” That might sound silly, but there aren’t many comedies these days that honor the parental characters. This is not lazy satire. There are no caricatures from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” here. The MacGuffs, while poor, are mentally acute and hilarious. If Roseanne’s daughter Darlene had gotten pregnant, I can imagine the conversation between her and Dan playing much the same as this:

“Did you see this coming,” Mac MacGuff asks his wife. “Yeah, but I was hoping she was expelled or into hard drugs.” To which he agrees: “Or a DWI. Anything but this.”

Juno, a high school junior, takes the early punches in the film with a grain of salt. She initially imagines pregnancy can be handled as easily as an algebra equation: “In 30 or so weeks, we can just pretend like none of this ever happened.” But it is her fear that inspires her to laugh in the face of it. Only a scared 16-year-old would make a life-changing event sound effortless. And Page has tremendous range for a young actress (check out the demented “Hard Candy” for further proof).

The wordsmith behind all of this is Diablo Cody, who has received a lot of praise for writing this script (her first). It is well earned. From the romantic awkwardness between Juno and Paulie Bleeker (the teenage father-to-be played by Michael Cera) to the tense scenes between the adoptive parents (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), or of Juno, by herself and crying in a van … this film knows when to laugh and when not to.

“Juno” is that rare bird, the deftly written art comedy that has a chance to succeed with the “Larry the Cable Guy” audience as well as Wes Anderson fans. It succeeds on all levels because it has taken great care to protect itself from the life-sucking cynicism that has a stranglehold on comedy today. It is being released on Dec. 25 here in Louisville, which is perfect timing. “Juno” reminds us that hopeful jokers like “A Christmas Story” were holiday favorites once. We need that sincerity now, more than ever. —Shawn Hudson

‘I Am Legend,’ hear me roar
(Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Dash Mihok and Charlie Tahan. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated PG-13; 1:40. LEO Report Card: C+)

This is Hollywood’s third try at adapting Richard Matheson’s successful pulp novella to screen. The first version, 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price, and 1971’s “The Omega Man” with Charlton Heston, were both box-office winners at the low end of the quality scale. Surely the charisma of Will Smith makes another stab at the story worthwhile, n’est ce pas? The answer is, as always, yes and no. There are great aspects of this film, and there are moments that make you yawn with boredom, squirm uncomfortably and laugh in embarrassment.

Smith plays Robert Neville, whose immunity from a fatal new virus leaves him the last living boy in New York City. It is in the early scenes that the film shows its appeal. The shots of deserted Manhattan landmarks are spooky and powerfully realistic. With his faithful German shepherd, Neville journeys citywide and attempts to recreate a semblance of his earlier life. A boy and his dog in a quest for mere survival, talking to each other and defending against fearsome enemies. It is a story older than Matheson’s. It goes back at least as far as Jack London.

This variation doesn’t stay terribly true to the novella. It is nevertheless livelier and more entertaining than the earlier ones, at least through the first two acts. The ending is another matter entirely. It’s one of those movies that works on a visceral level even as it fails artistically. The images employed are indelible, and Smith’s performance is just fine, but it is impossible not to see every plot turn coming from miles in the distance.
The sci-fi genre as a whole is a tough sell for anyone who has successfully negotiated puberty. Afterward, it becomes a guilty pleasure. This film involves more guilt than pleasure. —Paul Kopasz