Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Juno's Jiving

It’s axiomatic: Distinctive storytellers use distinctive means to communicate. In the cinematic world, they might invert a story’s chronology (Memento), turn archetypes on their heads (Enchanted), or hammer metaphors home with striking, unexpected imagery (Citizen Kane). In her breakout film Juno, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody used relentless quirkiness to make her mark.

The setup is simple, even though the execution isn’t. After getting pregnant from a one-time hook-up with a close friend, sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff must decide what to do with the baby. She calls her friends on a phone shaped liked a hamburger; chugs the world’s largest jug of Sunny D so she can take three pregnancy tests in a row; tries to hang herself with noose of red licorice before succumbing to hunger and eating it; decides not to abort when a protesting pro-life classmate (“All babies want to get borned!”) says that her fetus already has fingernails; and eventually breaks the news to a father who loves to fiddle with air-conditioning apparatus, a stepmother who worships dogs (although she doesn’t own one), and a little sister with an unholy love of Bac-Os. You get the picture. All the while, everyone speaks in sentences so stuffed with pop-culture allusions that the dialogue almost becomes a patois, a super-savvy slacker dialect that leaves your head spinning. (A throw-away line includes a reference to McSweeney’s, who are some of the nicest people to ever send me a rejection letter.)

It’s great fun -- at first. But after a while, it starts to feel like the story is struggling to get out from under all the silliness, as are the worthwhile themes on pregnancy and childbirth and love. That’s unfortunate, because it’s when the film throttles back that the truly affecting moments emerge. One particularly poignant scene is simply a long shot of Juno weeping in a minivan parked on the shoulder of desolate stretch of highway. A creative writing professor once told me that if I was to use profanity in my work, I ought to use it sparingly, so as to not blunt its impact. I suppose the same could be said for wit.

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