“Quirk is the New Kitsch” and other Academy Award observations
December 16, 2007
I’ve been thinking a lot about Juno these last two days. Juno is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and will probably get an academy award nomination for best picture (more on this in a second), for its celebrity screenwriter, one or more of its leads, and possibly for its director. Slate called the movie “Knocked Up from the girl’s point of view,” which perfectly captures the movie’s plot, and many of its values, in one sentence.
The movie is funny in an overly scripted kind of way, and ultimately endearing. That said, the movie at times feels like an affectation: the dialogue is often too clever, too stabbingly-snarky, and too cute; the soundtrack is excellent, but too loaded, hardly allowing for any sentiment other than ironic detachment; and Michael Cera isn’t really given anything to do other than being Michael Cera. Or, he’s able to express the movie’s inner-truth about its seemingly effortless portrayal of my emotionally lost generation:
Juno: You’re the coolest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even have to try.
Paulie: Actually, I try really hard.
Michael Cera (like our beloved Ray Liotta) is a type in and of himself, a brand. He’s able to get away from our expectations in longer, more developed roles like Superbad where he shows dramatic growth, but trapped in a smaller role like Paulie, Cera is never allowed to be anything other than Michael Cera as George Michael Bluth. Superbad makes me suspect that Cera can be an excellent actor; I just hope he finds the right role. But in a way, his casting is indicative of Juno‘s effortful-ness. It is trying to make everything endearingly quirky. On his own, Paulie is a sketch of quirk; with Michael Cera, he becomes the real deal.
I didn’t really agree with Michael Hirschorn’s Atlantic piece that we are becoming a culture of quirk, but Juno makes me wonder. He wrote, “Like the proliferation of meta-humor that followed David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s, quirk is everywhere because quirkiness is so easy to achieve: Just be odd … but endearing.” There is the temptation to make things quirky just for quirkiness’ sake (in the kingdom of quirk, you are a monster), but that doesn’t mean that quirkiness should be completely shunned. The problem is in the affectation. Juno the character is realized in her quirk, and is all the richer for it. The same earnestness does not apply throughout.
(For a sharper worded critique of a similar phenomenon, see ibiteyoureyes’ review of Little Miss Sunshine.)
As I mentioned in the beginning, Juno is likely to get an academy award nomination. So far my algorithm has it in 4th place:
1. No Country for Old Men, 2.509
2. There Will be Blood, 1.809
3. Michael Clayton, 1.009
4. Juno, .7
After that, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Atonement, American Gangster, Eastern Promises, and The Great Debaters are all tied with .549; a result of the Golden Globes’ 7 nominations in Drama. My guess is that Eastern and Debaters were the additional two. Things get still hairier with Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Knocked Up, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Into the Wild, Ratatouile, and the Savages tied at .46; then Charlie Wilson’s War, Sweeney Todd, Across the Universe, and Hairspray all charting at .24; and then there’s the Kite Runner and Gone Baby Gone who still show up on many critics lists.
In other words, things are still waaaay too close to call, but No Country, and There Will be Blood, feel like locks, and Juno seems to be the front-runner in the Comedy/Musical slot.