Even though he’s a likable actor and has appeared in several films that I enjoyed, I am always a little bit uneasy whenever I see Jason Bateman on screen. To me, he will always be Mark, the seemingly perfect husband from the 2007 best picture nominee Juno. Mark and his wife Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) are unable to conceive so they agree to adopt the unborn child of pregnant teenager Juno (Ellen Page).
At first, Mark seems like the nicest guy on the planet. Unlike his wife, Mark appears to be laid back and friendly. Whereas Vanessa tries to maintain a polite distance between herself and Juno, Mark quickly befriends her. It’s a familiar dynamic. Vanessa is the one who keeps the household running. Mark is the one who keeps the household fun. Vanessa is the adult and Mark is the guy who is young at heart. It’s not surprising that Juno finds herself feeling closer to Mark than to his wife.
Much like Juno, those of us in the audience are initially fooled into preferring Mark to his wife. For me, the first indication that Mark was not quite the great guy he seemed to be came when he attempted to convince Juno that Herschell Gordon Lewis was a better director than Dario Argento. But even that could be forgiven because, as Mark made his arguments, he revealed that he had a pretty good library of DVDs from Something Weird Video.
(Seriously, at that moment, I really hoped that the movie would just spend five minutes letting us see every title in Mark’s movie collection.)
But then there was that moment. After telling Juno that he was planning on leaving his wife, he looked at her and asked, “How do you think of me?” And I have to give Jason Bateman a lot of credit. He delivered that line with just the right amount of needy selfishness. It’s rare that you see an actor — especially one who has essentially built a career out of being likable — so fully commit to playing a reprehensible character. When Mark reveals his true nature, it’s shocking because we were so ready to like Mark. With that one line, we’re forced to re-examine the entire film and we realize that, much like Juno, we allowed ourselves to be fooled by Mark.
Juno is a film about growing up. Vanessa is a grown up. Mark refuses to grow up. And, by the end of the film, Juno has grown up enough to know that she’s not ready to be a mother but Vanessa is. Juno has grown up enough that she can allow herself to get close to the baby’s father, sweet-natured track star Paulie (played by Michael Cera).
For many people, Juno seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it type of movie. There rarely seems to be a middle ground. It seems that for every person who appreciates Ellen Page’s sardonic line readings, there’s another one who finds her character to be abrasive. For every one who enjoys Diablo Cody’s script, there seems to be another one who finds it to be overwritten. The same holds true for Jason Reitman’s direction. Viewers either respond to his quirky vision or else they dismiss him as being far too showy for the film’s own good.
As for me, I’m firmly and unapologetically pro-Juno. I think Juno is one of the best films of the past ten years and I think that, eventually, both the character of Juno and Ellen Page’s performance will be viewed as being iconic. When future historians are watching movies for clues as to what it was like to be alive during the first decade of the 21st Century, Juno is one of the films that they will watch.
And when they do, hopefully, they will understand that Jason Bateman was just an actor giving a good performance as a bad person.