Posts Tagged ‘Juno’

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SMART PEOPLE (2008)

April 30, 2008

Smart People Review

Matt:
Tracy:

Length: 95 min

Tagline:
Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.

Précis: Dull romantic comedy about a grouchy widower’s new relationship, and his smart but slightly strange family.

Review by Matt:

If you’re going to do a dysfunctional-family comedy, you’d better make it sharp. Dysfunctional families have remained the rage, especially since The Simpsons took the Cosby-family-backlash and really made it supreme. Arrested Development, Little Miss Sunshine, Wes Anderson films… there’s a lot of sophisticated dysfunctional-family comedy out there. Sadly, Smart People is a forgettable addition to the genre. It flutters blandly around the theme of “smart but dysfunctional” and sketches out a few ideas that don’t go anywhere interesting. Worse, despite its “alternative” pretensions, it succumbs to romantic comedy conventions in a cloyingly contrived fashion.

Leading the tedium is Dennis Quaid who plays an irritable, widowed University professor called Lawrence Wetherhold (a professor’s name if ever I’ve heard one). Lawrence has the book-smarts, but is totally insensitive when it comes to people. He’s raising a similar little misanthrope in his teenage daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), a success-obsessed Republican, who goes around fussing, achieving, and lambasting any non-achievement-focussed decision (hello to Michael J Fox in Family Ties). Evidently, Lawrence is also alienating his son James (Ashton Homes), a character revelation announced by James whenever his Dad drops by his college dorm. Lowest ranked in the family is incorrigible slacker Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church), Lawrence’s adoped brother. Chuck has come to stay with the family, seemingly to chauffer Lawrence, who is unable to drive, but in reality he’s there for some mooching. The plot of Smart People looks briefly at all of these characters. Primarily though it follows Lawrence’s fumbling foray into romance with his emergency room doctor, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), and the necessary redesigning of Lawrence’s cranky character so that the relationship can work.

It’s this undeveloped romance that is the killer blow to Smart People’s appeal. It goes through the holy trinity of weakly written romance. Firstly, the romance seems baseless. Why do they like each other? Nobody knows. Secondly, the couple sort of share a moment and then bam! – straight into bed together. Thirdly, there’s a halfway-point squabble to overcome. Even the squabble seems unnatural and unjustified. This trite trifecta all seems a lazy cheat because it was too difficult to write an honest path from friendship to love. To top it off, the characters are unlikeable. Dennis Quaid at least plays his moody intellectual well. But Sarah Jessica Parker is a flimsy piece of tissue paper, occasionally pulling coy looks, but giving nothing else to her already empty character.

The film’s other main characters, Vanessa and Chuck, are much more interesting. Ellen Page is lippy but damaged as Vanessa, like a reconfiguration of her character in Juno. The interesting subplot looking at her relationship with Chuck, her exact opposite, is only given a cursory treatment. Chuck alone is one of the best parts of the film, taking most of the good lines – but he only pops in occasionally like a comic-relief clown. Other comedy potential is also washed away in the tide of the predictable romance plot. Humorous avenues entice you, but then are quickly closed again.

Obviously it’s a frustrating result. There’s potential, but all the interesting characters and plot pieces have just been loosely sketched. Engaging ideas surface but float away to drown in the miserable romance and the “lessons in life”. Smart people will probably skip this film and watch something smarter.

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JUNO (2007)

March 13, 2008

Juno review
Juno

Matt: 4 stars
Tracy: 4 stars

Length: 96 min

Taglines:
A comedy about growing up… and the bumps along the way.

Précis: Teenage pregnancy has rarely been so indie-cool.

Review by Matt:

Kid 1: Hey dude, do you know who that pregnant girl is?
Kid 2: Juno?
Kid 1: No, I don’t know – D’you know?
Kid 2: I said: Juno!
Kid 1: I said I DON’T KNOW!! That’s why I’m asking YOU! [fighting ensues]

Hilarious as my contribution to the script for Juno is, unsurprisingly there was no space for this joke in the final cut. That’s because Diablo Cody – exotic dancer turned Oscar winning screenwriter – came up with a sharp screenplay for this film. Actually Juno is not really a joke-laden film anyway. The humour is pretty understated. What it does have is a charming eccentricity and, more than anything else, a sensitivity rarely seen in that type of film. Sensitivity and quirkiness have married happily.

The plot centres on sixteen-year-old Juno (played with cool nonchalance by Ellen Page), a teenager with endless sardonic wisecracks. Really, they just spew out of her like, well, like she’s had a witty script carefully written for her. Without meaning to sound too cynical, Juno really is a character with the best teenage qualities amplified and the worst erased. She faces a trial: she is pregnant to her sort-of boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera), an earnest softy with a passion for athletics and tic-tacs. Juno’s unkeen on terminating the pregnancy, so finds prospective parents who are desperate to adopt the upcoming baby: Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a wealthy couple who are all model homes, SUVs and propriety. But as the pregnancy moves on and Juno learns more about the couple, things complicate. The film develops some deeper textures that contrast to the slightly contrived world of Juno and her teenage sass. The plot that unfolds feels mostly honest and fresh.

It’s not surprising that Juno has experienced such an astounding success and that it has especially captured the affections of teenagers. It’s a new type of teenage film; respectful and positive about young people, with a fabulous heroine who is both smart and impertinent at once. Thoughtful teenagers have been sitting through teen junk for years waiting for this. Right now girls everywhere will be speaking in Juno’s laconic idiom and calling their friends on cheesy Juno hamburger-phones. They might not be dwelling on the hardships of life as a pregnant teen, but that’s a trade-off (and there are plenty of other films to dwell on that – or Degrassi Junior High at least).

Juno’s soundtrack is also a drawcard, with its mixture of indie-folk and retro (although it has inspired a string of woeful musical covers on YouTube) and it enhances the rebellious mood. Moldy Peaches, The Kinks, Belle and Sebastian, Buddy Holly, Sonic Youth; it’s an eclectic mix and kind of an invigorating experience. This is a film that, despite its sizable marketing effort and a popular director (Jason Reitman of Thank you for Smoking fame) seems all-over indie. Of course it’s not a true indie-film. If it were, it would have arrived through genuinely independent means, not through Fox pictures! Juno mostly just has a veneer of indie. Even the appearance of actors such as Jason Bateman and Michael Cera from the cultishly popular television show Arrested Development are likely to help bring in the right type of audience.

Provided you don’t find the constant stream of zinging witticisms disconcerting, there’s a lot to like about Juno. On its surface, it was already light-years more clever and original than most teenage comedies. But it’s also managed to add a deeper layer and to pull off a magical recipe of feel-good and oddball-funny without being juvenile or mawkish. So, although not hilarious, there’s plenty to smile at. Even without the inclusion of my superb joke.