Now that Juno has been nominated in four major Oscar categories (best picture, best actress, best original screenplay, and best director) and become the highest-grossing of the five best picture nominees (last week, it passed the $100 million mark; the next in line, No Country for Old Men, is at just above $55 million), it’s become a movie that one must take a position on. When Juno came out, I saw it as a flawed but fun indie, a film that, despite the screenplay’s overreliance on grating banter, somehow snuck up on you by the end and made you like it. Not everyone needed that much persuasion. The movie made more than 175 top 10 lists and was declared the best movie of the year by the likes of Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris. Some critics’ praise sounded as if they were gazing upon the Pantheon: “A confluence of perfection in every aspect,”wept the San Francisco Chronicle. A film “almost too unique for description,” marveled Film Journal International.
But Juno is also unique in its ability to get on people’s nerves, especially now that its Oscar momentum is building. Vanity Fair’s Oscar blogger, S.T. VanAirsdale, concedes that he likes the movie just fine but is put off by its nomination alongside heavy-hitters like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men: “Frankly, I don’t want to see Juno within a thousand feet of the Kodak Theater. I want her and her twee champions stopped at the metal detector. I want her turned away for being underdressed.” Jim DeRogatis, music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, gives a blunter assessment in a review of the soundtrack that quickly spirals into an anti-Juno screed: “As an unapologetically old-school feminist, the father of a soon-to-be-teenage daughter, a reporter who regularly talks to actual teens as part of his beat and a plain old moviegoer, I hated, hated, hated this movie.”
Then came the anti-backlash backlash. The day the nominations came out, Simpsons writer Tim Long piped up meekly, “Is it so wrong to have liked Juno a little?” Alone among the movies of 2007, Juno is a movie you adore or revile, attack or defend, and maybe change your mind about—not just after a second viewing, but halfway through the first.
Even the most convinced Juno lovers tend to agree that the movie’s first quarter is excruciatingly arch. Scanning the critical response to Juno, I was struck by the near-universality of this observation: Though initially off-putting, the movie eventually worms its way into the viewer’s heart. Many critics, including me, pointed to the 20-minute mark as the point when irritation gave way to affection.
On a second viewing, I could clock more precisely the movie’s trajectory from coy to bearable to genuinely moving. The nadir of cuteness is the much-reviled opening, in which Ellen Page’s pregnant teenage heroine trades stiff quips with a convenience-store clerk (Rainn Wilson): “Your eggo is preggo”; “Silencio, old man!”; “This is one diddle that can’t be un-did, homeskillet.” Soon after comes the too-cute early scene in which Juno breaks the news to her best friend, Lea (Olivia Thirlby), on her hamburger-shaped phone, provoking such interjections as “Honest to blog?” and “Phuket, Thailand!”
Juno may not have had me at hello, but it managed to win me over by the time Juno’s carapace of cleverness finally shows its first chink, as she admits to her disappointed father (J.K. Simmons), “I really don’t know what kind of girl I am.” Maybe it was Ellen Page’s luminous face and brazen self-confidence, or the unexpected transformation of Jennifer Garner’s character—beautifully played by Garner and, yes, beautifully written by Diablo Cody. Michael Cera’s exquisite comic timing makes even his underwritten character come alive. And I know I’m supposed to sneer at the precious indie-rock soundtrack, but some of those songs are really catchy. I tried to approach a second viewing in the mood of critical dyspepsia capable of inspiring one-liners like “[Juno] is a vintage lunch box purse with nothing in it.” But I have a hard time despising this sweet little movie, even if much of the acclaim being heaped upon it (best director? best picture?) feels like overkill.
At this point, it’s difficult to separate Juno hatred itself from a more general ennui inspired by the film’s marketing campaign. There’s the maddening ubiquity of the movie’s pseudonymous author (say it with me now: stripper turned blogger turned Oscar-nominated screenwriter!). Cody is now writing the back-page column for Entertainment Weekly (I’ll leave the question of whether her writing there is groundbreakingly sassy or painfully self-indulgent to be battled out in the feature’s bloodthirsty comments section). Then there’s the faux-humble Oscar push that’s trying to position Juno as the “little movie that could,” even as Fox throws the full weight of its marketing dollars behind it. Juno’s unexpected groundswell among young viewers has even been compared, with a straight face, to Obamamania: “Look at the political world,” says Russell Smith, one of the film’s producers, in this week’s Entertainment Weekly cover story. “If you say the word ‘change,’ everybody gets up and applauds. That’s where we are: We’re dying for something different.” Good luck hitching your wagon to that star, Russell. But if anything, the sharply split popular opinion on Juno, and the depth of loathing it’s capable of inspiring, seems more reminiscent of Hillary Clinton. Both ladies are heading into a hotly contested election; it remains to be seen whether their champions or their haters will win the day.