The Cool One
The target here is not the abortionist but the hipster.
Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
A debate has arisen about whether the out-of-nowhere smash hit comedy Juno--a box-office sensation and the sleeper candidate for Best Picture Oscar--is a pro-life document and, therefore, a cultural landmark of sorts. Rick Santorum, the former senator, says it is. He points out that the title character, a 16-year-old Minnesota girl, sets out to abort her fetus but is then told by a good-natured classmate demonstrating outside the clinic that the unborn child she is carrying has fingernails. Santorum is very excited by Juno's decision to have the baby, so much so that, he writes, "I begin this new year with greater hope for our culture."
Michael Currie Schaffer, writing on the New Republic's website, scoffs at the notion that there is anything new here: "Abortion has long been a rarity in celluloid life, where all kinds of improbable moms bear all kinds of inconvenient children in order to produce all kinds of plot lines. . . . Unfortunately for the culture warriors of the right, on-screen childbirth says little about our national progression towards hell in a hand basket."
Schaffer is right. Juno is only anti-abortion if one thinks a cinematic depiction of a character who chooses not to have an abortion and suffers no adverse consequences from that decision turns that decision into a political and moral statement. But he is also terribly wrong. Juno is very much a movie that takes a firm stand against "our national progression towards hell in a hand basket."
But the enemy of all that is good and true and noble here isn't the abortionist. It's the hipster.
Juno is a devastating--indeed, almost inarguable--polemic against cool. The movie offers its delightfully drawn title character two paths, the way of the hip and the way of the square, and teaches her that the way of the hip is an emotional dead end. Juno (Ellen Page) is one hip 16-year-old. Indeed, Juno is so hip that she speaks in her own wiseacre slang. ("Hello," she says when she calls the family-planning clinic, "I would like to procure a hasty abortion.") Born in the 1990s, Juno comports herself as though she were a 1970s teenager, listening to Iggy Pop and speaking on a vintage Me Decade phone in the shape of a hamburger. What's more, Juno knows perfectly well how hip she is, asserting with confidence that the star of the football team wants her because she's not the head cheerleader.
One evening she decides to amuse herself by fulfilling the dreams of her extremely un-hip best friend, Paulie (Michael Cera, the off-kilter comic original from Superbad). He's a gangly boy who uses deodorant on his thighs before he goes out running and is addicted to orange Tic-Tacs. While her pregnancy understandably mires her in self-obsession, she fails to notice that Paulie is desperately in love with her and that their intimacy has only deepened his feelings for her. She, playing it light as every hipster must, begins suggesting names of other girls whom Paulie should take to the prom. Diffident down to his toenails, Paulie obeys her directive. And it is only when she discovers he is doing what she suggested that she realizes the depth of her feelings towards him.
As a character, Juno might have been intolerable. But she is, instead, entirely winsome, a little girl wearing big girl's clothing who hopes you won't notice. Ellen Page, who plays her beautifully, has a petite frame from which emerges an interestingly tinny voice (close your eyes and you might think it's an old lady speaking). Her sophistication is entirely affected.
That is not true of Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), who is part of the childless married couple to whom Juno agrees to relinquish her baby after birth. Mark is a successful composer of commercial jingles who works at home in a McMansion chafing under the domestic finickiness of his extremely yuppie wife, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner). Even though he is a man two decades older, Juno sees him as a kindred spirit. He's a musician, he owns cool guitars, and he loves gory movies. The cool guitars and gory movies are stashed away in corners of his house because Vanessa doesn't want them open to public view. He is relaxed and funny; she is tight-lipped, nervous, and has no evident sense of humor.
If Juno were a conventional comedy, Mark would be a classic romantic-movie fantasy figure of a good guy whose bad marriage posed the only obstacle to a life of love and happiness with our heroine. But Juno is not a conventional comedy. For one thing, our heroine is 16 years old. For another, Mark's hip friendliness masks far more unattractive qualities. "Well," says his wife to Mark with withering scorn, "aren't you the cool one?" She could not have been more cutting if she had called him a pedophile.
And that is the hidden, and profound, cultural conservatism at the heart of Juno. The movie's celebrated screenplay is by a first-timer named Diablo Cody, a 29-year-old with many tattoos and a nose stud who says she worked for a time as a stripper. Cody turns out to be a double agent, working not for the sex workers of the world or the independent-film lions of the Sundance Film Festival, but rather in the secret interest of America's unfashionable bourgeoisie.
The movie's bourgeoisie range from the too-earnest Vanessa to the devoted Paulie to the sacrificing shleps in Juno's family: her father, a military man turned air conditioning installer obsessed with Greek mythology, and her straight-talking stepmother, who loves dogs but can't have one because Juno is allergic to canine saliva. These people, oddballs all, make it possible for Juno to ditch the too-cool-for-school act and luxuriate, miraculously and touchingly, in a newfound innocence after her difficult and life-enhancing experience.
John Podhoretz, editorial director of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.