Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is up the duff. Pregnancy arguably not being an ideal state for a sixteen-year-old still in high school, she opts to rid herself of her spawn one way or another. Abortion not being an option that appeals to her (something to do with her foetus already having fingernails, apparently), she opts to go down a different route, seeking a family to foster the child. For uptight yuppie Vanessa Loring (Jennifer Garner) and her hen-pecked husband Mark (Jason Bateman), this seems like a dream come true. For Juno, however, cursed with a rapidly ballooning stomach and an increasingly acerbic attitude towards the world, it's going to be ninth months of physical and mental grief, the latter of which she seems intent on inflicting on as many bystanders as possible, including the dopey father, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), and her long-suffering parents (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney).
To admit that the first I heard of Juno was in the form of a parody clip produced by Olde English is perhaps indicative of the extent to which this comedy about that most hilarious subject, teenage pregnancy, has wormed its way into popular culture. If you haven't seen the film, chances are you've at least heard of it or its writer, the curiously-named Diablo Cody, and their own peculiar brand of self-reflexive wordplay. Bagging itself the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, the script has been praised repeatedly for portraying teenagers as they really are and allowing them to talk as they really do, which strikes me as rather odd and suggests that those making such grand statements have neither been teenagers nor come into contact with them in a very long time. The characters and speech in Juno are clearly stylised and have more than a hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer about them. That's not to say that it isn't funny - it is, often magnificently so (my favourite line is Juno's riposte "Well, I'm sorry I had sex with you") - but there is a sense that Cody is trying slightly too hard to be wacky and unconventional. The most irritating, and perhaps most publicised, of these bon mots is the phrase "Honest to blog," which luckily occurs within the first ten minutes and is only uttered once, but, if seeing it in written form makes you want to tear your hair out, then perhaps this film isn't for you.
Stripping away the superficial flash of the highly unrealistic dialogue, however, it becomes clear that Cody has a real knack for characterisation. Juno and her motley crew may not speak like real sixteen-year-olds, but their motivations and behaviour are never less than completely convincing. Juno may be astoundingly jaded for someone of her age, but, beneath her cynical bluster, it's readily apparent that is actually quite a considerate human being, doing her best to shield the child's father from the wrath of her parents (although their reaction to discovering his identity is not what you'd expect and provides one of the film's funniest moments), and, when she decides she can't go through with an abortion, ensuring that "someone gets a blessing out of this garbage dump of a situation". The decision to forego a termination, incidentally, does not, in my opinion, serve as an anti-abortion polemic, as some critics have suggested (actually, the one pro-life activist who appears is portrayed as a thoroughly ridiculous character whose principles are poorly thought out to say the least). Those who wonder why an abortion is not presented as a more viable solution might also question why there is never any suggestion of Juno wrestling with whether or not to raise the baby herself, but, by sidestepping these issues, the script is able to concentrate on the characters themselves without becoming issue-based or mawkish.
Such mawkishness is saved for the mother to be, Vanessa, who, despite being ably played by Jennifer Garner (whose performance here should dispense with any notion that she is only suited to lightweight romcoms), is so infuriatingly broody and sickly-sweet that I was surprised I didn't need fillings after digesting the film. It's strange, because, to me, her husband, Mark, is easily the most relatable character in the film, but he is given short shrift and denied any form of closure (taking care to avoid spoilers, he simply drops out of the narrative around two-thirds of the way in and is never referred to again). The fact that he considers Herschell Gordon Lewis a better director than Dario Argento is frankly a little worrying, but his reluctance to commit to parenthood is convincing, and Jason Bateman evokes a great deal of sympathy for a character who, in another actor's hands, could easily have come across as simply selfish or immature. (For my money, he's no more or less selfish than his wife, whose relentless urge to "complete" the family by adding a child to it, by any means necessary, blinds her to the reality that their marriage simply isn't working and that Mark doesn't want the same things she does.) As Juno's father and stepmother, J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney both turn in solid performances too, and it's something of a pleasure to finally come across a teenage comedy in which the adults aren't all complete morons.
This is Ellen Page's film through and through, however. After her star-making turn in 2005's Hard Candy (a film which, personally, I found incredibly overrated), her performance here once again underscores the fact that hers is a name worth keeping tabs on. While I feel that it's a shortcoming of the script that Juno never seems to find her pregnancy to be much more than an inconvenience, Page does manages to insert several little inflections to suggest that, beneath her surface bluster, the ordeal is actually taking its toll on her. As with Jason Bateman, I suspect that the character would have come across as considerably more obnoxious if played by a weaker actress, and, while Juno is probably not someone I would personally want to hang out with (especially if she insisted on playing her dreadful music), there are moments, particularly when the character's sardonic façade crumbles, when Page manages to make her seem almost endearing.
Juno, ultimately, for all its faults, is a fine film and one that, while at times a little too smarmy for its own good, and unlikely to make you laugh out loud more than a couple of times, has an infectious wit and wonderfully showcases the talents of its cast, all of whom turn in stellar performances. It's quite strange that the film's Oscar win was for its script, in my view its weakest element, but it rises above the screenplay's shortcomings and is, in the end, among the best that that often justifiably maligned sub-genre, the teenage comedy, has to offer.
Presented in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this 1080p AVC encode is possibly the best Blu-ray transfer I have seen from Fox, whose track record with the format has been decidedly spotty, thus far. This is an independent film (or at least it was before Fox picked it up) shot for a modest budget, but that doesn't stop it from looking superb. True, those expecting lavish effects shots that jump off the screen will be disappointed, but in that case I would suggest that they had unrealistic expectations. Rather than a whiz-bang extravaganza of high-tech eye candy, therefore, what we get is a rich, extremely detailed and above all film-like presentation with a decent amount of untampered grain, which makes the transfer appear textured rather than video-like. There are a handful of instances of extremely minor artefacting if you look very closely, but nothing that should prevent you from enjoying the experience. I've given the video a "9" rating, but it's actually very close to a "10".
For audio options, Fox have provided DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital tracks, both in 5.1. Given that I watch my Blu-ray discs on a Playstation 3 and don't have an HDMI 1.3 compliant audio receiver, I have been unable to check out the machine's newly added DTS-HD decoding capabilities with this disc, but in any event the 1.5 Mbps DTS core sounds very good indeed. As with the image, it isn't flashy, and very rarely does it use the rear channels for anything more than augmenting the music and sound effects, but it is a very full, satisfying mix that does what is required of it and sounds perfectly clear throughout.
Spanish and French dubs are also provided in Dolby Digital 5.1, along with optional English and Spanish subtitles for the film itself (but not the extras).
Juno has been decked out with a large array of extras for both its standard definition and Blu-ray releases, although, unfortunately, they look rather more substantial on paper than they are in reality. Things kick off with an audio commentary featuring director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody. It's a chatty, laidback affair that succeeds in conveying quite a lot of information from both sides of the camera, with Cody's "oh-my-gosh-something-I-wrote-was-made-into-a-film" coming across as quite infectious. To some degree, both participants try a little too hard to be as wacky and humorous as the characters in their film, but this is still a pleasant enough track to listen to.
An array of deleted scenes follow, again with optional commentary by the director and writer. Around 20 minutes' worth of additional material is provided, comprising 11 different segments, including a coda for the character of Mark, something that was sorely missed in the final cut, although what is included here is still fairly dismissive in tone. A gag reel is also provided, along with a "gag take" which essentially takes the form of Rainn Wilson (who plays the checkout operator at the beginning of the film) going on a rant about Jason Reitman's direction in a manner that leaves me uncertain as to whether or not it's a joke. Similar in tone is a cast and crew jam, essentially a tongue in cheek music video involving players from both sides of the camera.
The rest of the bonus content consists of a series of featurettes, none of them stretching beyond 10 minutes and all of the fairly light EPK variety. These focus, chronogically, on the teenage characters (Juno, Leah and Bleeker), Diablo Cody, Jason Reitman, and the process of bringing the film from script to screen. There's not a lot here that you couldn't have worked out from watching the film itself, and generally each of the four featurettes serves as little more than an excuse for various parties, including the writer and director, producers Mason Novick and Daniel Dubiecki, and most of the core cast, to slap each other on the back and extoll, ad nauseam, the virtues of the film's apparently life-changing script.
The final "feature" included in this package is what Fox refers to as a "Digital Copy" (funny, I thought Blu-ray was digital too). Essentially, what this means is that, included on a second disc is a copy of the film that can be transferred to your computer or portable video device (such as the Sony PSP or an MP3 player with video support) - because, after all, what could be better than sitting in the park on a bright summer's day and squinting at a four-inch video screen and hoping your battery doesn't run out before the end of the film? (The first disc includes a trailer extolling the virtues of Digital Copy and portraying just such an activity.) Curious to see how this feature worked in practice, I inserted the second disc into my computer and clicked the requisite buttons to tie this copy of the film to my machine. To call the quality of this version of the film poor would be something of an understatement, and ten seconds was all I needed to determine that this was not something worth bothering with.
Recently, however, I had reason to upgrade my computer, necessitating a reinstall of Windows. Upon popping the Digital Copy disc in for the purpose of writing this review, I was greeted with a message telling me that my allowed license acquisitions had been exceeded. In other words, my unique license key was already tied to one machine (my previous one, the components of which have since been scattered to the four winds on eBay), and I could therefore no longer use it. The images above (click the smaller thumbnails to view them at their full size) sum up my thoughts on Digital Copy more than adequately.
Blu-ray Exclusive Extras
The final two featurettes on the disc are, for no apparent reason, exclusive to the Blu-ray release. Both are made for TV pieces produced for the Fox Movie Channel, and run for 5 and 8 minutes, focusing on the world premiere and casting process respectively. These are even more irritatingly fawning than the other featurettes, the piece on the premiere especially, thanks to the presence of an incredibly annoying presenter whose enthusiasm is probably every bit as synthetic as her face and breasts. Those who only have the standard definition DVD are really not missing much.
For Juno, Fox have provided stellar audio-visual quality that ranks among the best they have produced for the Blu-ray format. While the bonus content is a little on the lightweight side, and the extra Digital Copy disc serves no discernible purpose, those who enjoyed the film can rest assured that they are getting a presentation of the highest standard and should have no qualms about picking up a copy.
8 out of 10
9 out of 10
9 out of 10
5 out of 10