Life & Death

‘JUNO' & ‘SWEENEY TODD'

I first heard about Jason Reitman’s quirkily bighearted film Juno from an unlikely source: Rush Limbaugh. The maven of right-wing talk radio had seen an advance screening, and he gushed about the movie’s prolife message. Rush’s recommendation was almost enough to scare me off, but I went anyway—and I’m glad I did. Reitman’s movie is the most charming surprise of the past year in cinema.

Juno opens with a comic-book animation sequence that morphs into real life, as Kimya Dawson’s folk-pop melodies strum both plangent and sweet, and a brash girl protagonist fires off edgy one-liners calculated to show the world she’s tough. And Juno MacGuff will need to be, because at sixteen—and such a little waif of a thing!—she finds herself pregnant, the result of an afternoon seduction of her friend Paulie Bleeker, a guitar-playing classmate who radiates shy kindness.

Confessing her mistake to her father and stepmother, Juno assures them she has things under control. She calls an abortion clinic and announces herself with another cynical-sounding wisecrack (“Hello, I’d like to procure a hasty abortion!”). But she can’t go through with it. In the clinic’s parking lot, a lone prolife protester informs her that the fetus she’s carrying already has fingernails. The image sticks; and impulsively, but with apparent deep certainty, Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. The rest of the film charts the up-and-down comedy of her pregnancy and resolute search for a home for her baby. Through a newspaper ad she eventually meets Mark and Vanessa, a childless couple living in yuppie splendor in the suburbs, and after some hesitation, agrees to let them adopt her baby.

The ensuing complications include some surprising reversals, and Reitman handles them with a winning mix of drollery and tenderness. His previous film, Thank You for Smoking, displayed a similar warm irreverence, but its satirical take on a nasty subject-the cynicism of a tobacco industry lobbyist-limited the reach of its sympathy; you had the feeling Reitman liked his protagonist more than was healthy for his movie. In Juno MacGuff, writer Diablo Cody has given Reitman a vastly more sympathetic heroine, and the result is a coming-of-age film that teens and parents can watch, and like, together. Indeed, there’s hardly a teenage girl in America who won’t identify with Juno’s mix of sarcastic braininess and underlying vulnerability; and parents will thrill to the film’s portrayal of a rebellious girl emerging rather magnificently into adulthood, exhibiting responsibility, care, and an instinctive respect both for others and for herself.

And for her unborn child. In this regard as well, Reitman’s film represents a signal synthesis. Clearly feminist, with a fiercely independent female protagonist, it emphatically refuses to portray an unwanted pregnancy as a calamity. Quite casually, Juno defies a ruling shibboleth of upper-middle-class life, with its insistence on unencumbered freedom, individual attainment, and absolute control over one’s destiny. Juno’s mistake is an inconvenience and a challenge, but nothing that can ruin her life; indeed, the film asserts undogmatically, the mistake enriches her life.

It is fascinating to speculate, amid the endless political and legal war over abortion law, that change might come from somewhere else altogether, and far more mysteriously than strident partisans on either side suspect. Perhaps the lesson is to pay attention to how the culture votes with its feet—that is to say, with its movie tickets. Take Juno, or the equally popular Knocked Up, essentially a guy’s version of the same story; or consider the changing culture of celebrity pregnancy over the past decade, in which stars, instead of hiding their pregnancies, now boast about them. Yesterday’s newspaper, meanwhile, heralded 2006 as the start of a “baby boomlet,” with more births in the United States than any year since 1961. And today’s paper announces a drop in abortions to the lowest level in almost twenty years. Something interesting is happening.

Juno has become a surprise smash hit, making over $70 million at the box office, and it will surely figure come Oscar night, thanks in part to tour-de-force performances by Ellen Page as Juno and J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney as her parents. Less visible or measurable is the role it may play in changing attitudes. With no evident polemical purpose whatsoever, its creators portray Juno’s awe and delight at the images on an ultrasound screen, and give us an indelibly lovely scene in a shopping mall, where Vanessa drops to her knees, puts her ear to Juno’s belly, and listens for the fetus. That scene alone may do more to shape the next generation’s mind than a decade’s worth of vehement debates. Those who regard the prevalence of abortion here as tragic can thank Juno for the work it has done, endowing pregnancy with a sense of wonder that pushes back against our culture’s mania for freedom, control, and choice. It sounds crass to say, but Juno makes pregnancy seem cool. And that really is prolife.

On an entirely different note—a musical note, specifically one of madness and violence—I have to add a pitch for Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton’s screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway hit. The story derives from a Victorian-era urban legend in which a London barber, driven mad by rage for revenge against a corrupt judge who years ago stole his wife, butchers his clients indiscriminately. Sondheim’s play added a mischievous piemaker, Mrs. Lovett, who gruesomely incorporates the products of Sweeney’s spree into her tavern fare, creating what is surely the only treatment of murderous cannibalistic psychosis ever undertaken in musical comedy.

Such material requires something beyond realism, obviously, and Tim Burton is just the man for it. From Beetlejuice to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he has shown himself to be the ultimate fantasist; his films are darkly mesmerizing, self-enclosed worlds that operate through a mythic or dreamlike logic. In Sweeney Todd, the London he imprisons us in is a surreally dismal city of smoky, lowering doom. Everything looks gray, mottled brown, or black—better to highlight the rain of blood pouring from the sky, as if the heavens themselves are mortally wounded by sanguinary doings in the abattoir below.

The performances in Sweeney Todd are all first-rate (and Johnny Depp, as Sweeney, handles the singing chores adequately), but the real star remains Sondheim. Musically, this is a work of towering genius and terrifying irony. The songs are never more gorgeous than when the lyrics disclose a horrific intention, and the disjunction between seething word and swooning melody both expresses and furthers the atmosphere of madness. In a recurring motif, characters sing duets yet remain locked in separate and clashing thoughts. In “My Friends,” Mrs. Lovett ventures a tentative romantic overture to Todd while he sings a rapt aria to his gleaming razor, vowing it will soon “drip precious rubies.”

Once Mrs. Lovett persuades Todd to provide the filling for her meat pies, the musical breaks through to an even greater darkness. Sweeney Todd links the madness of cannibalism explicitly to the viciousness of early capitalism, with its pitiless exploitation, and brings macabre merriment to an unremittingly nihilistic vision of humanity. “Oh, what’s the sound of the world out there?” Todd sings as he and Mrs. Lovett waltz their way through the tavern, meat cleavers in hand. “It’s man devouring man my dear, And who are we to deny it in here?”

 


Read more: Letters, February 29, 2008

Related: Sex & the Teenage Girl, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

Published in the 2008-01-31 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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