Back to School #68: Juno (dir by Jason Reitman)



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.

Film Review: Easy A (directed by Will Gluck)

For some reason, I didn’t see Easy A during its initial run even though it was one of those films that, every time I saw the commercial, seemed to be beckoning me to come down to the theater.  All of my girlfriends saw it and loved it and told me that I had to see it because apparently they sat through the whole movie going, “Oh, that’s so Lisa.”  And then, before long, every guyfriend of mine ended up seeing the film and they all came back to me and said, “You have to see this film because my date kept going, ‘Oh, that’s so Lisa!'”  Of course, when I heard that, it was time for me to start doing the whole talk-to-the-hand motion  and going, “Oh no, she didn’t!” because that’s what you do when a guy says that his girlfriend was talking about you.  Anyway, I got so busy pretending to be on Maury that I ended up missing my chance to see Easy A in a real theater.

Instead, I had to settle for seeing in a dollar theater on Thursday and can I just get off topic here for a few minutes?  Can I?  Will you indulge me for just a second for me to speak the truth?  Okay, I know that some people kinda think I’m a film snob because I’m always raving about the Angelika and finding excuses to mention that I don’t have the read the subtitles when I go to a French film.  Well, so be it.  Call me a film snob because I am now convinced that Dante’s Inferno is a dollar movie theater.  Seriously, until I saw Red and Easy A this week, I just assumed that people with really bad hygiene just didn’t go to the movies.  Now, I see that they just hang out at the dollar theaters.  And here’s the thing — even though they’re only paying a dollar, they still can’t show up for the freaking movie on time!  Seriously, what is the deal with these dumbfug toadsuckers who just want to come in to the theater 30 minutes late and then spend 10 more minutes wandering around in the dark looking for a seat.  Look, you can look in a newspaper, you can look online, you can call the mutherfracking theater — IT IS NOT THAT HARD TO FIND OUT WHEN YOUR FREAKING MOVIE IS STARTING, PEOPLE!    And then, you  not only show up late but you bring your own food with you because, of course, who doesn’t want to spend an hour listening to you trying to open up one of those loud, crinkly bags of Sun Chips while everyone else is trying to pay attention to the movie?  I mean, you’re already late, you only paid a froking dollar to get in — JUST BUY SOME FRICKING POPCORN, YOU SELF-CENTERED, MYNA BIRD-LOOKING, DUMBFUG MOTHAFRACKER!  I MEAN…GAWD!

I’m sorry…where was I?

Oh yeah, Easy A.  It’s a good movie, probably one of the best high school films I’ve ever seen.  How good was this movie?  I still loved it even though I was watching it in Dante’s Inferno.

Emma Stone plays Olive, a high school student who — in order to get out of going on a weekend camping trip with her best friend — tells a lie about having a date with a boy named George.  (And I can’t blame her because seriously, camping?  BLEH!)  The next Monday, Olive is asked for the details of her imaginary date and her inability to give anything more than the vaguest of details is interpreted to mean that she lost her virginity over the weekend.  (Vagueness being interpreted as sluttiness happens far more often than most of us like to admit.)  Olive’s story about losing her V-card is overheard by Marianne (Amanda Bynes) and soon the entire school is aware that Olive is no longer hymenally challenged.  In short, Olive is now … a girl with a reputation! (Cue ominous music and Vincent Price laughter.)

Soon, Olive — previously a perfectly content wallflower — is the most notorious student at school.  Popular boys want to talk to her.  Unpopular girls want to be her.  At first, Olive tries to tell people the truth, that she was just telling a story.  After people refuse to believe her, Olive starts to go with the flow and enjoy the benefits that come from being extremely popular.  After her gay friend asks her to pretend that she had sex with him in order to help him survive the homophobic world of high school, Olive finds herself being given money and giftcards from other boys in school, all of whom are paying for the right to say that they’ve had sex with her.  Olive decides to embrace her new role of faux-fatale by dressing like she’s on the CW and stitching an A (a la the Scarlet Letter) on all of her clothes. 

And then, she starts to discover the truth about having a reputation in high school.  A reputation makes you both popular and an outcast at the same time and Olive finds herself trapped in a web made up not so much by her lies as by everyone else’s assumptions.  Can Olive escape and find happiness?  Can she find true love with Todd (played by Penn “Oh. My. God! He’s so freaking hot!” Badgley)?  Will she get a chance to have the pointless musical number that she assures us, at one point, her story truly does need?  Will Emma Stone receive an Oscar nomination for her performance as Olive?

Well, the answer to that last question is probably no (though she did receive a Golden Globe nomination) because Easy A is not the type of movie that usually gets nominated for Oscars.  And that’s a shame because Stone gives one of the best performances of the year here.  In the comedic scenes, she manages to generate a hundred more genuine laughs than Annette Bening did in The Kids Are All Right and in the dramatic scenes, she proves herself to an actress of true range.  If you want to see some truly great acting, just consider the scene where Olive goes on her first actual date since becoming known as “the school slut.”  Staring out nervously talking too much and giddily laughing at her own private dates (one of the many scenes that made me go, “Oh my God!  I do that too!”), Stone effortlessly transitions to having an emotional breakdown in a parking lot after discovering that her date has no interest in her and is only with her because he heard she would be an easy lay.  I don’t think there’s a girl over the age of 15 who doesn’t know how painful that feels, to be reduced only to what strangers think of you.  It’s a pain that stays with you and Stone captures it perfectly and, silly as it may sound and at the risk of going all girl power here, I almost felt that when I saw Olive triumphing over it that there was hope for me and for everyone else.

Easy A rang very true to me, not the least because I was one of the girls with a “reputation” while I was in high school.  Then again, I don’t think there’s many girls who didn’t have a reputation for something in school.  Some of us had a reputation for doing it and some had a reputation for not but in the end, it was usually all used to keep us in the same prison of insecurity, resentment, and entrapment.  To its credit, Easy A not only captures the negative side of having a reputation but also realizes and show that having a reputation can be fun and liberating as well.

Even beyond such larger concerns, Easy A is an entertaining, funny movie that not only rings true but is genuinely likable in way that a similar film like Juno never was.  I mean, I loved Juno but in the end, you couldn’t hep but feel that the film was mostly about screenwriter Diablo Cody trying to make herself into a cooler teenager than she actually was.  (And that’s not meant as a criticism, just an impression.)  Juno was almost too perfect and too brilliantly sarcastic.  You liked her but never quite believed in her.  Olive, as played by Emma Stone, is a normal teenager who doesn’t always say the perfect thing and, who most of the time, is just as much of a dork as the rest of us.  My favorite sequence in the whole film is one where Olive ends up spending a weekend growing obsessed with the song “Pocketful of Sunshine” and it wasn’t because it fed into some sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Instead, it was because it was a scene that made me very honestly think, “Oh my God, I’ve done that so many times.”

Easy A is a surprisingly thoughtful and intelligent movie that just happens to be disguised as a breezy, teen comedy.  That high school, in general, is a world full of fucked up ideas and attitudes about sex is no great secret but Easy A is smart enough to realize that the real world is pretty much just one big high school.  I saw the movie too late to include it on my list of the Top 25 Films of 2010 but it is one of the best films of 2010.