Thursday, June 12, 2008

Maybe John Hughes Should Have Been a Stripper for a Year

Let me try to pre-empt the inevitable backlash this post is likely to create by saying I LIKED Juno. I thought it was cute, clever and entertaining. But I've never understood the amount of critical acclaim it's gotten.

I heard rave reviews for the film from two fairly opposing ends of the taste spectrum -- Oprah Winfrey and the guy who performs in a horse costume as Miles, the Denver Broncos mascot. With that sort of support, I figured it was something I needed to see. But for the first half an hour or so I was really struggling to figure out what exactly I was watching. Maybe I was too caught up in the overall social and pop culture context, but the movie I was seeing wasn't the one I had expected.

Then it hit me. I was watching Pretty in Pink. And once I realized and accepted that I was able to really enjoy the rest of the movie.

Hear me out a minute -- that comparison is in no way intended as a slight. John Hughes wrote the script for how many of us growing up in the '80s either thought or wished our lives were, or both. It just took him a bunch of films to cover it all. Maybe the Academy was rewarding Diablo Cody's ability to squeeze all the good stuff into one story when it gave her the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. That presumes that her version of Some Kind of Wonderful doesn't come out next year.

Whatever the case, here are six comparisons between the two films that I hope help illustrate my point:

1. Just when you want to willingly suspend your disbelief and think you're watching real people dealing with real problems, the dialogue gets a little TOO snappy and you're jarringly reminded that somebody wrote this.

At the risk of sounding too disconnected from modern youth, I'm willing to bet that most conversations haven't evolved beyond the, "What do you want to do? I don't know -- what do you want to do?" level of the discourse I had with my friends. As much as we may have wished we could address the question of what we wanted to drink with something as glib as Duckie's, "Oh you know, beer, scotch, juice box... whatever," response, we didn't really. Nor do I guess there are many (any) current teenagers who, when their friends ask if it's them on the phone, reply, "No, it's Morgan Freeman. Do you have any bones that need collecting?"

2. High school kids are the most advanced beings in both universes. Fathers have three functions -- generate revenue (however meager), provide transportation and dispense salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar wisdom. Other adults are mostly shallow and flawed, or appear for the sole purpose of uttering pithy lines like, "That ain't no Etch-A-Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be un-did, Homeskillet," or "If you give off signals that you don't want to belong, people will make sure that you don't." Cinematic equivalents of those flies that have a 24-hour life span, they live briefly on the screen, shine brightly and then are gone.

The teen protagonists, on the other hand, are generally grounded and perceptive -- aware of their own shortcomings and willing to accept or overlook those of others. It's often said that teenagers think they know everything, so I suppose if you want to appeal to that demographic you have to pander to it to some degree.

3. Both soundtracks are comprised almost exclusively of "alternative" music. Pretty In Pink delivers a Who's Who? of '80s new wave with artists like Echo & the Bunnymen, New Order, The Smiths and The Pyschedelic Furs. Juno features minimalist indie pop from Belle and Sebastian, Cat Power and three different flavors of Kimya Dawson, solo and with her bands Antsy Pants and The Moldy Peaches.

In both cases not the music most of the films' targets audiences actually listened to, or else the soundtracks wouldn't have far outsold anything the individual artists put out. But the choice was critical to each film's credibility. Andie and Juno wouldn't be believable as outsiders if they listened to Madonna or, well, Madonna.

For the life of me, though, I have no idea why Pretty in Pink went with a cover of Nik Kershaw's Wouldn't It Be Good by someone called the Danny Hutton Hitters instead of the original. Neither does Kershaw, apparently.

4. Jason Bateman's Mark Loring character has some striking parallels to Annie Potts' Iona. Bateman, like Potts, is stuck in his past and struggling to move forward with the next phase of his life. Both characters are the adults that the main characters feel most comfortable relating to, finding common ground around music. Both also use their teen friends as catalysts to break out of their unhappy relationship status, although Bateman's feels much more like selfish regression than Potts'. Those transformations then serve to inspire both Juno and Andie to make their own "big decisions," though giving up your baby is inarguably a little weightier than going solo to your prom.

5. Speaking of prom, that cherished high school event brings the romantic issues of both films to their respective heads. Juno gets upset when she finds out Paulie asked another girl, while Andie is hurt when Blane uses that as an excuse to back out of taking her. Both lead to confrontations that pave the way for true love to win out in the end. Wow, I can't believe I just typed that with a straight face.

6. Both Juno and Andie are "have nots" who help the "haves" -- Jennifer Garner's Vanessa and Andrew McCarthy's Blane -- discover what truly matters in life. Substance over style, inner beauty over outer, etc. The tried and true message that money isn't the measure of a person. All right, that's two straight maudlin platitudes, which is two more than this blog should ever have. Time to wrap this puppy up.

There are other similarities that are more cosmetic, like the absence of both main characters' birth mothers, Paulie and Duckie both using bicycles as their main mode of transportation and so on. As comparable as these two movies seem to me, I can't figure out for the life of me why Juno has been made out to be so much more.

It reminds me of the huge groundswell of support Babe got back in 1995 when it, too, was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, including Best Picture. At the end of day, it was a cute movie about a talking pig. Ellen Page is no pig, but for whatever reason her nice little picture was able to strike a similar chord in people.

Tough luck, Molly Ringwald. Only time will tell if that Page kid is able to follow this up with something as powerful as The Pick-up Artist, though. I wonder whatever happened to your co-star in that epic...


galsinsuite100 said...

...wait...are you saying Miles isn't a real horse?

SteveHarbula said...

Don't be silly. Of COURSE Miles is a real horse. But you know how Santa has lots of helpers who dress up like him around Christmas and go to malls and parties because the real Santa can't make it to all of them? Same deal.