Sunday, February 10, 2008

If it has half the cast of Arrested Development...

then it has to be good, right? Juno shows us that's clearly true.

Review and Analysis: Juno and Little Miss Sunshine

So Juno doesn't actually have half the cast of television's best comedy of the decade. But it has two, and that's good enough for me. Although, before getting too deep into the discussion, imagine a universe where Juno's father is played by Jeffrey Tambor, who played George (and Oscar) Bluth, and tell me it wouldn't be wonderful.

Oddly, for all the character permutations present in the movie, the Arrested Development reunion of Michael Cera and Jason Bateman never actually showed up. The character permutations that did show up were very good. Orson Scott Card, an author to whom a big part of the inspiration credit for this blog goes, once told a trick for effective characterization. Good characters necessarily become exponentially more complex as the number of characters increases. With only two, you have to write two personalities, and define how the two of them interact. With three, you have three personalities, three sets of interactions, plus any modifications to the interactions if the three of them ever showed up as a group. Some set theorist could probably define this mathematically for large numbers of characters; Card maintains it's a bad choice to include more characters than definable interactions.

And honestly, think of the best literature and movies and television shows. Either they're incredibly complex to the point where using Card's definition rule would merely bog things down, or they truly do focus on a completely defined network of characters. House, at least for the first three seasons, had essentially six characters. You could always describe the relationship between, say, House and Wilson; between Cuddy and Foreman; between Chase and Cameron. One of the reasons that Alien was so classic wasn't necessarily its command of science fiction, but the fact that it had only eight characters, most of whom had distinct relationships to each other. The list could go on.

Ultimately, the Card relationships are impressive in Juno--and something approaching perfection in Little Miss Sunshine, which I'll hit on again later. I'm not sure why it makes so much sense to review these two movies together, except that I read somehow that they were connected in an AJC article a month ago. I think that Movie People could probably explain some better reasons they're connected.

After doing my homework, Wikipedia reports that both are the products of Fox Searchlight.

Another similarity I can immediately identify is that, in the Garden State vein, they're both Soundtrack Movies. That is, they're movies whose soundtracks that people can actually reasonably want to buy, and whose music lends character to the movie rather than just providing background noise. One of the guys I watched Juno with remarked that "this soundtrack is supposed to be like living in Zach Braff's earwax." Of course. Because every work of art in this genre has to be incestuously related to each other, and if I like one of them, I must like them all. But that's a discussion for a different day.

The soundtrack for Little Miss Sunshine was pleasantly Sufjan-ed up, but otherwise not especially remarkable. My dad hit the nail on the head when he described Juno's as "trying a little too hard". Juno tries too hard in a lot of respects. It makes a lot of minor missteps. And yet, I think that's almost intentional. Juno herself says to Bleeker that he's cool and he "doesn't have to try hard". He responds "I try really hard." That could just as easily be an admission, or a wink and a nudge to the audience trying to tie a massive motif together.

Juno herself is the ultimate in trying too hard. Whether it's the writers trying too hard to make her an indie kid, or intentionally going over the top and establishing her character as one that tries too hard to be an indie kid (I prefer to think it's the latter), she's crafted to seem halfway between exquisitely organic and meticulously assembled. Sure, everyone knows someone who uses the same idiosyncratic turns of phrase that she does, that wears Slinky shirts like she does, that guzzles 52-oz blueberry slushies, that has a penchant for obscure 70s punk and slasher movies, that speaks with the same consistently sarcastic timbre. But is there anyone who's that intensely individual... does a Juno actually exist, or is she an amalgamation of every trait held in high regard by a certain demographic? I maintain that nobody is really quite like Juno, and that forcing every one of these attributes into her makes her seem a little alien, something where the whole is not greater or less than the sum of the parts, merely a little off.

She is the sort of character who can make you develop an instant crush on Ellen Page, or who can instantly make you enter super-movie-critic mode, and talk about things like "motifs" and "character relationships" and "traits". But whatever way you look at it, this a movie about trying too hard. The characters, the characterizations, the movie itself. Happily, all of them, especially the movie itself, prevail in the end. Juno takes stale ideas and plots--things like Growing Up Versus Childhood, and Responsibility Versus What Feels Right--and makes them into a story that's not only coherent but engaging. The resolution of those themes is well done, with each supporting character (Bleeker, Mark, Vanessa) not exactly developing as the movie goes on: each remains essentially a static character. The truly interesting approach here is that they seem to be developing, but that's really an illusion, more of a function of Juno's perception of them as they react to her situation than any actual divergence in character. It's an interesting cinematic device, and it works beautifully given what else is going on in the movie.

Ultimately, Juno is excellent, a movie that actually delivers comedy, drama, and characters you care about. It's highly recommended, and punctuated by a wonderful performance from Ellen Page, and nearly equally good showings from Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, and Jennifer Garner. However, if you could choose just one movie to see, it would have to be Little Miss Sunshine.

Most movies, when I'm done with them, I sort of nod, and think okay, that was fun. A select few, like Juno, I actually recommend as something that's entertaining and worth seeing. After I finished Little Miss Sunshine, I had one thing to say: "what a wonderful movie."

I mean it. If you can only see one movie over the next (arbitrary length of time) make it Little Miss Sunshine. The first thing I noticed about this movie, and the thing that inspired my Card analysis of Juno, was that every single one of the characters interacts with every single other character remarkably. Grandpa has a character that shines through all his interactions. But that interaction changes subtly (yet believably) when he talks to Olive, or to either of her parents.

The quirks that pervade Juno's character are here distilled and selectively inserted into every character in the movie. Dwayne? You swear you knew a guy like that in college. Frank? If that guy doesn't show up to your family reunion, that's the exception rather than the norm. Every moment following these characters, and every moment delicately probing the unique relationship that each character has with the next, is nothing short of delightful. And the climax of the movie, with Olive dancing to "Superfreak" and drawing the ire of every other pageant-goer? Anton Chekhov wishes he could write irony that brilliant.

Currently listening: "Just Give Me the Damn Sepak Tekraw Ball," from the Onion News Network podcast

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