Sunday, February 24, 2008

Suspensions of Disbelief - "Like, yeah-HUH!"

Sacred Vessels in the Land of

"Juno" is a film so dominated by its script (by Diablo Cody*) and its actors (they're all television veterans with countless man-hours before the camera) that all director Jason Reitman has to do is get out of the way-though in the transitions he routinely cuts on the 1's of the pervasively twee-rock soundtrack to maintain the air of perkiness. The kids that dominate this film about lower-middle-class families making the most of a bad situation--well, bad in the timing--are so pervasively cute and clever in their articulation and word-play that one wonders if they hail from some part of the country where the main sport is Scrabble, and instead of MySpace they all hover around "" Ultimately one has to ascribe to it the same rule that one applies to Bette Davis movies where everyone always has the perfect come-back: "They have better writers than we do."

But the same troubles. Juno MacGuff starts the movie pregnant and pissed. And pissing. She's buying the home-pregnancy tests out of the box one at a time from the convenience store and using their facilities to test it. "You better pay for that pee-stick when you're done with it," says the clerk (played by "The Office's Rainn Wilson). "Don't think it's yours just because you marked it with your urine!" She gets the unholy pink "x" and starts to puzzle out how to proceed: telling parents, telling sperm-donor, what to do with said spawn, yadda yadda yadda. "Juno" skips along dealing with all these crises and quite a few more, and never slides into bathos, preaching or "after-school special" earnestness. The characters are all people for whom regrets are a waste-of-time, and are too busy doing their best to do too much navel-gazing. Well, almost all. One walks away charmed, and admiring the cleverness and the near-occasion of bravery the movie displays. And there are no bad performances. Anywhere. No actor lets this material touch the ground, whether its the stunningly decent work by vet-thesps like Alison Janney and J.K. Simmons, but also wise work by Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, and, yes, Jennifer Garner. But the big bouquet goes to Ellen Page who carries the movie on her slim shoulders and always finds a way to make the dialog sound like she's just saying it off the cuff. That's a tough trick to pull for an entire movie--an entire comic movie--this entire comic movie. Frankly, it would've been easier giving birth.

"Juno" is a pop-culture flip-remarkable "Matinee" (Whoah! Rate Big!)


It Takes a Sex Toy to Raise a Village

Everybody likes Lars. Lars is 27, lives in the carriage-house of the family home. Keeps to himself. He goes to work, eats, attends church, chops wood.

And that's about it.

Lars is socially retarded to an alarming degree, so much so that he feels it hurts to be touched. His family worries about him. They feel guilty. They don't know what to do.

But Lars does. He's surrounded by people with relationships, so he decides to get one. But that touching thing...that's a problem.

Then one day, Bianca shows up, a mail-order girlfriend. Lars tells his brother and sister-in-law that he has a girl-friend and he'll bring her over for dinner. They're elated. Then they find they didn't need the extra setting. Bianca's a sex-doll. Fairly realistic looking, but she doesn't move. At all. Lars has to carry her, until he gets her a wheelchair. He cuts her food for her. Eats it, too.

In a case of intervention, all four go to the doctor (Patricia Clarkson, being warm but acting cold), who takes one look at Bianca and worries out loud that she needs weekly treatments for her alarmingly low blood pressure, and uses the opportunity to find out exactly what is going on with Lars. She advises that they should play along--"Bianca's in town for a reason," she says. "But, people will laugh at him!" says his harried brother, played by a note-perfect Paul Schneider. "You, too," says the doc.

It could be perverse, and if Lars actually had relations with Bianca, people wouldn't be enjoying this movie nearly so much. Nor would it be as enjoyable if the entire town didn't, for the sake of Lars, go along with the story and accept Bianca. And that acceptance happens almost immediately. Sister-in-law Karin informs her coffee klatsch friends that Bianca is anatomically correct, and one of them says, "Soooo...she's just one of the girls, then..." The pastor of the church goes along with it. Everybody does. Ev-e-ry-bo-dy. Which set off some reality alarms for me. There aren't any disaffected youth, or jerks or morons in this town? Hell, if any of the kids from "Juno" lived there, Lars would be getting the "stink-eye," at least. And in a land where every inflatable Christmas lawn ornament is at risk, Bianca has it REALLY easy.

Still, it's an enjoyable film, full of heart in the right place, and offers lots of enjoyable surprises in screenplay, performance (it's hard to believe this is the same Ryan Gosling from "Fracture") and overall tone. One wishes there was a second there where one could believe in it.

"Lars and the Real Girl" is a matinee, though my opinion is deflating.


* Diablo Cody has such a fresh, smart way with dialog that one hasn't been as excited by a screen author's work since Zach Helm, who wrote "Stranger Than Fiction." Since Helm went on to create the lead balloon "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," one doesn't want to be too effusive in one's praise, lest one set oneself up for disappointment.

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