This is Why ‘Juno’ Bothers Me

So, it’s official… America loves Juno. This little independent film now has the 31st biggest per screen opening of all time along with $31,470,011 at the domestic box-office to date and folks think it may top the $59.8 million fan favorite Little Miss Sunshine took in 2006. Here’s the question: Why? Why does everyone like this movie?

Only ten out of 156 reviews at Rotten Tomatoes call the film “Rotten” giving it an impressive 94% rating, and while I personally didn’t hate the film and even gave it a “B-” in my review I can’t quite seem to figure out all the love. Yeah, it has some clever dialogue delivered in all of its “Dawson’s Creek” glory as if the 16-year-old Juno studies “Wit for Dummies” on her off time, but it can’t simply be all the one-liners that people are falling in love with can it? The film is being referred to as “quirky”, “smart”, “witty”, “intelligent” and “hip”, but for some reason the one word that is not being used is “unfair”.

Back in November of 2007 I sat down with director Jason Reitman for an interview about the film and only now do I feel it is appropriate to bring it up since I was waiting to hear what more people thought of this film and if my concerns would ever be addressed by anyone else. Since they weren’t I feel I must stand alone and bring you my conversation with Reitman. Be warned, there are plot spoilers to follow.

My problem with the film is the way Reitman treats the Mark character played by Jason Bateman. Mark and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) are the “happy” couple that will be adopting 16-year-old Juno’s baby. Juno found them in the Penny Saver and felt they were the right family for her illegitimate child. Upon meeting Mark and Vanessa we instantly realize that Vanessa controls Mark in every way. All of Mark’s belongings have been tossed into a single room and his dreams have been pretty much shunned. Even the mere mention of his former band generates a scowl from Vanessa as her wants and desires take precedence in their household. I hate to use the phrase “controlling bitch”, but nothing else seems to fit.

As Juno’s pregnancy progresses we learn more about Mark and all of his dreams that will never come to fruition. We learn that he has pretty much abandoned everything he loves for the sake of his marriage. He works out of the house creating commercial jingles and doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of Vanessa who, as I mentioned, is not interested in anything Mark is interested in whatsoever.

The story moves along and Mark and Juno create something of an unorthodox friendship, never going over the line, but treading very close. Mark sees the youth in Juno and feelings of doubt in his marriage and where his life is heading creep in and he ultimately decides to end his marriage and asks Vanessa for a divorce. It is this moment in the film that Reitman decides Mark is now an immature guy that is unwilling to grow up. He is unwilling to “step up” as Reitman tells me and be a man. We are now asked to look at Vanessa with sympathetic eyes and feel compassion for her as she will make a great mother and has been abandoned by this immature pathetic man that is unwilling to accept his responsibilities. A man Reitman tells me he pities. Sorry, can’t do it.

How is it that the person whom has had their life thrown into a tiny room and has been told to forget his dreams is the immature one? Why should I feel Vanessa is some sort of great person just because she will be a good mother? Does everyone need to grow up the same way? Does everyone need to get married and have a kid to be considered an adult? If someone wants to hold on to their dreams does that automatically make them an immature person trying to keep a handle on their childhood?

I asked Jason about all of this last November and here is how it panned out:

Jennifer Garner’s character is not a nice person. She is never nice to Mark, from the outset, and I don’t know why we are supposed to…

Jason Reitman (JR): Here’s my feeling. I had a kid in the year leading up to the making of this movie. So in many ways I was identifying with what was going on in Mark’s head, which is the fear of growing up, the fear of closing a chapter of your life. That’s the most terrifying thing about having a child as a guy. You’re dealing with your own mortality. You’re closing a chapter of your life. You’re saying good bye to a period in your life that you can’t have back and that’s really scary, it’s legitimately scary and I went through that. I was pushing all that stuff directly into Mark.

Now, I was also going through what Vanessa was feeling, which is that desperation for the child, a desperation for everything to be all right, for the kid to come and for her to be healthy and perfect. So I kind of identified with both characters. I think one of the wonderful turns on this movie is that you immediately identify with Mark at the beginning. Cool guy, nice, digs music, seems very put upon by his wife and we see guys in that situation all the time. Guys who seem to be strangled by their spouses and their possessions wind up in the corner of the house, maybe in a closet and if they’re lucky they get a room of their own to put up their rock posters and jam out.

So, it’s a movie where you initially feel sorry for this guy for having to put up with this uptight wife and then it turns on you, well it didn’t turn for you, but the idea is that it turns for you in that you begin to realize that Vanessa is a woman who was born to be a mother. She has been believing in this relationship from moment one and when she feels the baby kick and you see the sincerity… The change is that, instead of a woman who seems to want to have a family and a child to fit a Martha Stewart mold that you see in those goofy photos she has on the wall and those incense sticks that she has, you realize that her desire to be a mom is completely legitimate and it’s not fake.

I agree with some of what you are saying. I enjoyed the film actually, I just don’t agree about the treatment of Mark. I agree there is a switch in her character. It’s just that he was so stifled in the beginning, he was already stifled, and he had already lost that part of his life before the kid was ever a reality. Now all of a sudden he has definitely lost it, she told him he can’t do that and even puts him down for it.

JR: The idea is that at a certain point you need to grow up. That’s my thought to Mark. The difference between me and Mark is that I stepped up. I stepped up and am a father and he didn’t and that’s what’s kind of sad.

It’s who he is. He did the right thing for him, if he had stayed in that marriage it would have been a lot worse, but I kind of pity Mark a little and you can feel that in the film.

I agree with you that he is immature in the moment that he is looking for approval from Juno when he says, “I thought you would be happy about this.” That is a sign of immaturity, looking for affirmation from a 16-year-old.

JR: He’s desperately trying to be a child. You know, the love affair of Mark and Juno is not sexual. It’s not two people trying to be with each other…

That would have ruined this movie by the way and I didn’t think you would do it, but there is that scene where many will say a line has been crossed.

JR: Yeah, there’s that one second… It’s about two people that are obsessed with where each other are in life and here’s Juno who’s flirting with adulthood and here’s Mark who’s flirting with childhood, and they both are not supposed to be in the other place. Juno who is pregnant and could easily become an adult is flirting with adulthood but needs to remain a child and Mark, who is flirting with childhood, and cannot go back to being a child, ends up in kind of this cyclical nature for the rest of his life.

Personally I don’t think Jason really addressed my concerns about the treatment of Mark as something of a villain. If you have already had your life taken from you and are now reaching a point of certainty that you will never get it back you have two options: 1) Stay in the marriage and suffer; 2) Get out and do your best to live the life you want. Why is it that we should pity Mark and feel sad for him wanting to live the life he wants? You only get one life, why be miserable if you don’t have to be?

Mark is making the mature decision to end the marriage and allow everyone an opportunity for a better life. If he had not made the decision, it is as Reitman said, “[If] he had stayed in that marriage it would have been a lot worse,” so why the harsh treatment?

Considering Juno is not about one-liners and is actually a coming-of-age story this part of the film is the central storyline, which is why I have such a huge problem with it. I don’t mind people enjoying the witty dialogue and funny one-liners, but I just wish more people would have really evaluated the treatment of Mark’s character as I think it truly is the most important piece of the story.

One thing I will say is that Jason Reitman is one hell of a director, because what he did with Mark is not necessarily thanks to the script, it is all due to his direction. I give him credit for being able to achieve his goal, even if I disagree with it. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, agree or disagree.

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