Arrested Development

The first two minutes of 'Juno' cause concern, but the next 90 minutes become one of the year's best films

The first few minutes of Juno are far from promising. For starters, it opens with the line, "It all started with a chair." That sounds like something that a creative-writing major would write after reading her first Raymond Carver story. It's hard to even type it without putting an emoticon of a tiny puking man after it.

Then up comes the incredibly hipstery low-fi music, and an animation sequence done in the currently trendy high school notebook-doodle style. These are followed by more hipster trendyisms, and then we meet a 16-year-old girl who speaks as though her dialogue had been penned by a 30-year-old woman who desperately wants to go back in time with all she's learned and finally be the cool, confident teenager who knows just what to say to the mean kids.

And then, for about 90 minutes, it becomes one of the best movies of the year--easily the best comedy, and probably the best drama. It makes Superbad look like a John Hughes film and Knocked Up look like an old Playboy magazine from the '70s.

Ellen Page stars as Juno, a newly pregnant and painfully hip teenager whose bedroom was clearly decorated by a depressed 35-year-old record-collector nerd. But once you get past that, and the fact that her frequent and forced music references make her sound like Robert Christgau's punk-rock wet dream, not to mention the general artificiality of the character, Page somehow manages to bring her to life. As a character, the problem with Juno is that she's too good to be true. She invariably says and does just the right thing. It's all a little compensatory, and she'd easily be a stock sitcom character, except that after about three minutes, the dialogue gets so good that it doesn't matter.

The story gets richer and richer as Juno dumps on her adoring nerd boyfriend (Michael Cera), prepares to give her baby to a couple of yuppie superbots (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) and tries to cope with her growing belly and her capacity to effortlessly utter perfect one-liners. But what's best about the comic lines is that they're not jammed in for laughs; they actually develop character and advance the plot.

This kind of actual comedy writing (as opposed to the kind of comedy writing artificially produced when teenagers have sex with pies) is pretty hard to pull off, but somehow, and seemingly in spite of herself, screenwriter Diablo Cody--who was stupid enough to give herself the name "Diablo Cody"--has managed to write the smartest funny film in quite some time.

While Juno seems like a fantasy self for the writer, the rest of the characters are completely believable while still being characters. J.K. Simmons is amazing as Juno's father, Mac MacGuff. His performance has a quintessential dadness about it. When Juno tells him that she's pregnant, his reaction is simultaneously concerned, startled, appropriate and sincere. It's kind of like what you'd get if you turned Mitt Romney inside out while passing him through an antimatter universe.

Allison Janey plays his manicurist wife with her usual weirdness, but she manages to take what could be a stereotypical pink-collar, dog-loving, scrapbooking suburban mom and turn her into not only a source of laughs, but also a real, feeling human being.

While Janey, Simmons, Page and nerd-boy love-interest Cera are all tremendously hot, what really makes Juno cook is the way the perfectly paced film sounds and looks. Every line, after the first couple of minutes (and except for a weak soliloquy at the end) is razor-sharp-zinger material. It doesn't exactly sound real, but it's delivered so naturally that you don't mind its artificiality.

And, also, it's notably hilarious. Somehow, all the hipster references work. There's an ode to cult filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis, scenes of teens playing sad-core freak folk and some mumble-core set pieces, yet they all blend perfectly into this grungy story.

Director Jason Reitman, whose last film was the clunky but well-intentioned Thank You for Smoking, has really matured here. While the camerawork and lighting on Smoking looked like it was done by an untrained cocker spaniel, Juno is tight on all counts. Even the dashes of animation and the clever placement of cutesy props are reined in and presented in just the right dosage (200 milligrams every 35 minutes).

So as much as it tries to be hateable, and in spite of a few self-indulgent moments, Juno is shockingly good. And since this is the time of year when we celebrate pregnant teenagers, it couldn't be a better time to go see it.

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