Doodad Kind of Town

End of 2007 Roundup: "Juno," "The Savages" and "Joe Strummer…"
January 1, 2008, 8:32 pm
Filed under: Romantic Comedies

There are limits to what a quick wit or a powerful intellect can get you in life. Those emotional watershed moments – the birth of a baby, for example, or the final illness of a parent – are events for which cleverness or book smarts are just about useless to prepare you.

That’s the thought I came away with after seeing two seemingly disparate films -“Juno” and “The Savages” in rapid succession over the recent holiday week.

Jason Reitman’s “Juno” is the tale of a 16-year-old girl (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant the first and only time she has sex with her friend Pauly (Michael Cera). Neither are prepared for parenthood, of course: gawky, gangly Pauly still sleeps in a bed made up with race car driver sheets, while Juno (named for the Roman Goddess “who was really beautiful and really mean, like Diana Ross”) deflects the seriousness of her situation with non-stop wisecracking. For reasons that are never entirely clear, Juno decides to have the baby and to give it up for adoption to an attractive suburban couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who advertise for a baby in the local Penny Saver.

There are complications, of course. Juno, plucky and bright though she may be, isn’t fully prepared for what she’s facing. The film initially coasts along on Juno’s breezy panache, but her plan subtly begins to unravel. The seemingly perfect adoptive parents she’s chosen for her child are flawed and a bit mismatched. Garner is, at first glance, uptight and a bit too “Martha Stewart-y”, but she’s genuinely and deeply invested in becoming a mother. Bateman, a former rock and roller, is feeling constricted by his suburban existence and approaching fatherhood. He bonds with Juno over shared interests in music and horror films, and director Reitman delicately orchestrates their relationship so that it (thankfully) refrains from becoming unsavory, even as we sense (well before it registers with Juno) that something is amiss.

The adults here are all wonderful (including J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s amazingly calm and supportive parents), but it’s Page and Cera who are the revelations. A old theatre friend of mine used to bestow her highest praise on actors when she said “You never catch them acting,” and that’s a compliment both these young actors can be paid. Page is very funny, but there’s depth behind her crackling wit. You can always glimpse the vulnerability and adolescent misguidedness behind her razor-sharp line readings. When everything falls apart, and Juno lets her guard down, Page is heartbreaking without resorting to histrionics. Cera (who was also wonderful in this summer’s “Superbad”) beautifully captures the sincerity and innate goodness of a boy who truly loves Juno and only wants to do the right thing by her. He’s the boyfriend every clever high school girl would want. Cera and Page, in fact, deliver performances so finely and delicately calibrated that I’m tempted to call them the year’s best.

My only quibble with this film (and it’s a small one) is with the soundtrack. I’ll admit to being a crotchety old fart when it comes to “kids today and their music” (my radio dial is ALWAYS on the classic rock station), so I found the twee, tuneless little ditties that pop up throughout “Juno” to be annoying and intrusive. I didn’t even trouble myself to find out who sang them.

In “The Savages,” it’s the end of a life, rather than the beginning, which brings its protagonists to their knees. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are bright, brittle siblings, Wendy and Jon Savage, who are forced to care for their estranged father (Philip Bosco)when he develops senile dementia.

Wendy is a struggling playwright who makes do with temp jobs and a half-assed romantic relationship with a married director; Jon is a theater professor and an expert on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy longs for emotional depth and connection (to the point that she tells astounding lies when she needs to solicit comfort or affection; she can’t bring herself ask for those things directly). By contrast, Jon takes pains to exclude such messy complications from his life; he allows his girlfriend of two years to return to Poland when her visa expires with the flimsiest of explanations as to why he can’t marry her.

Yes, this is a film about a dysfunctional family, but the family’s history is not delved into. There are suggestions that the father was abusive, both verbally and physically. By the time we meet him, he’s far into dementia, yet it’s obvious that neither his moments of rage nor those of lucidity have much connection to his kids. There are some serious distances within this trio of family members.

The three actors are all wonderful, of course. Hoffman and Linney have a convincingly sibling-like relationship that turns from shared jokes to heated arguments on a dime. Bosco gives an unshowy, moving performance as a man who is slipping past the point of being able to retain his dignity.

The events of this film – putting a parent into a nursing home, preparing for the end of their lives – are ones I haven’t yet had to face in my life. The friend who accompanied me to “The Savages” has experienced all this and assures me that the film is devastatingly accurate in its portrayal of all those indignities of old age. I give the credit to writer/director Tamara Jenkins, whose film is unsparing and unsentimental in its details – from the brisk, professional cheerfulness of the nursing home workers to the realities of adult diapers and living wills. There’s a mordant, rueful wit underlying “The Savages” which saves it from being completely depressing; it’s not the happiest film you’ll see this season, or even the best. But Hoffman, Linney and Bosco are well worth experiencing.

As previously confessed, I’m an old fart when it comes to pop music. Actually, it’s worse than that: I am desperately, hopelessly uncool. (Just ask the former boyfriend who gave me no end of grief over my extensive collection of Amy Grant CDs.)

So I’m at a loss to explain why I even ordered a documentary on the late Joe Strummer (former frontman for The Clash) from On Demand this week -let alone watched it twice in its entirety within a 12-hour period.

Let’s just say I got drawn into “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten” in a way I wouldn’t have predicted.

There are lots of interviews with friends, former lovers and bandmates, and cool celebrity fans (including Bono, John Cusack and Martin Scorsese, among others.) There is lots and lots of footage of Strummer, not only with The Clash and with his latter-day band, the Mescaleros, but with early groups like the Vultures and the One-on-One’rs. There’s music, but not enough. My familiarity with the Clash pretty much ended with “Rock the Casbah” and “Train in Vain” before I saw this film; now I’m itching to go out and stock up on Clash CDs.

The film is directed by Julien Temple, whose credentials for covering the punk rock scene of the late 70s are pretty well established (his previous work includes the 2000 documentary on the Sex Pistols “The Filth and the Fury”.” Then again, he also directed “Earth Girls are Easy.”) I’m not sure what to make of some of his rapid-fire film clip montages, particularly the frequent inclusion of clips from the animated version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Are we meant to equate Strummer with Napoleon? (Or was it Snowball – which one was the Lenin pig and which one was the Stalin pig again?)

Anyway, what does emerge from “The Future is Unwritten” is a fascinating and full-bodied portrait of an artist who was brilliant but deeply flawed. He was a charming and welcoming host, but thought nothing of sleeping with a friend’s girlfriend. He preached about love and humanity and taking care of one another, but he could be a mean son of a bitch. In the end, we’ve got his music, and it was pretty freakin’ great! If “The Future is Unwritten” could get this Amy Grant fan and Sondheim-o-phile to pop “London Calling” into her CD player, then it must be doing something right.


2 Comments so far
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Every time I saw “The Savages” I kept thinking it was an action thriller so thanks for correcting my faulty brain. After reading your reviews I’m mightily tempted to watch both Juno and The Savages once I can find enough pocket change to pay for those eleven dollar tickets. Grrrrr.I’ll be coming back for more!(I found you through LAMB)

Comment by Matt

Hi Matt! Welcome!Yikes – eleven bucks for movie tickets? I’d be selective about what I saw, too! (Here in Chicagoland, tickets are $9.50).

Comment by Pat

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