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Critical Revisionism: Retrospective Re-Evaluation…

It’s funny. I always figured that long-term critical re-evaluation was sort of a one-way street. I guess it always seemed that people were talking about “classics” that got an unfair rap from critics and audiences on initial release, but have subsequently become amongst the most influential films within their genre. I’m talking about movies like Blade Runner or The Thing, movies that were attacked on initial release, but have undergone a massive transformation and vindication in popular consciousness. I generally figured that good films that got bad reviews would eventually be found and praised for the quality productions that they were, while over-praised mediocre (or worse) films would languish in purgatory, forgotten about, save the occasional television re-run. So I’m surprised at the way the tide seems to have turned against Juno in the five years since the film’s original release.

Well, that's one response...

Don’t get me wrong, there was evidence of a backlash when the film was originally released. It had the grave misfortune of pulling to the head of the Best Picture nominees early, earning more money than the other four competitors. As in virtually any other public competition (from the Golden Globes to elections for public office), this made the film “the one to beat” and saw all manner of harsh criticisms levelled against a movie that seemed to be doing quite well with critics and audiences at the time.

Some of the criticism seemed levelled at the movie for having the gall to receive a nomination:

But not everyone wins come February 24, and, frankly, I don’t want to see Juno within a thousand feet of the Kodak Theater. I want her and her twee champions stopped at the metal detector. I want her turned away for being underdressed.

The movie doesn’t even feature any illiterate Nazis, what’s with that? All joking aside, there was a whiff of classism about the whole affair (“…the screenwriter, who calls herself “Diablo Cody”,” David Edelstein writes, reserving a strange contempt for a nom de plume).

Fueling the fire...

Still, the film went on to be a very big success, and I think the general tide of public opinion stood in the movie’s favour. Sure, it wasn’t a drama in the same mold as No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood, but it was regarded as a “charming” little film, at least initially. When it didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar (not that it ever had a chance), I think the conversation died down a bit. So, I’m quite surprised when I browse the internet and I find a significant volume of pure bile directed at Reitman’s film, half-a-decade after its original release date. Of course, there’s no objective way to measure it, but I find it hard to believe that – if critics were polled today – the film would retain its impressive 93% at Rotten Tomatoes.

I should note at this point that I am not suggesting that the majority of movie fans hate Juno, or even that the majority dislike it. I’m merely suggesting that fewer people would have a favourable opinion of the film now than on its original release. If we look at its scores on the Internet Movie Database, as voted by film fans, we see the audience rating dropping from 8.2/10 in 2008 to 7.8/10 in 2010, dropping completely out of the top 250 films. In contrast, No Country for Old Men only dropped from 8.5/10 to 8.3/10 in the same period, while There Will Be Blood dropped from 8.3/10 to 8.2/10.

Pregnant pause...

I wonder how such a turn in the tide comes about. I find it hard to believe that the film’s Oscar campaign was the sole factor, and that it swayed on-line opinion so thoroughly. I should also clarify that I don’t think all the criticisms levelled at the film are without merit. Indeed, it’s up to everybody to decide what they do or what they don’t like. I also think it’s natural that opinions change over time, and I’ll confess that even my own opinion of films has been known to shift over extended periods.

You could make the case that a lot of Best Picture winners suffer the same sort of fate, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing in effect. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that any opinionated film viewer treats the Oscars as an objective and definitive poll of the year’s best films. After all, we all publish our own lists, and we all take such joy in picking apart the Academy’s list year-in and year-out. So I don’t think, for instance, that the fact How Green is My Valley hasn’t aged as well as Citizen Kane could be seen as proof of this argument.

Competition is tough...

I suspect that a great many pundits and film viewers felt, even back then, that Welles had produced the stronger film, and that view was simply vindicated by history. Indeed, the more recent surprise win for Shakespeare in Love gave the award to a film with was well-liked, if not well-loved – I don’t think that it fell in anyone’s estimations after it won the awards, just that it wasn’t necessarily ranked too highly to begin with. I don’t think anybody was lauding it as a triumph of modern cinema that could measure up to Saving Private Ryan or even The Thin Red Line.

Perhaps part of it is the fact that the backlash has had time to ingrain itself, to settle in. Perhaps the battle-lines that wer drawn in Oscar season, and still fresh the following September, have become dug-in trenches over time. Maybe this means that there will be a war of attrition fought by film fans over the film, until one side concedes. Or perhaps it will be remembered as a “divisive” film, rather than a “good”one. It’s possible that the arguments just took a little bit longer to sink in, as the criticism seems much more common now than it did during the Oscar campaign.

The meat of the issue...

I wonder if outside factors contributed to the revisionist opinion of Juno, as if the movie were somehow tarnished by events that followed. Indeed, if you look at the film now, it seems like it is some weird focal point of any number of much-maligned elements. Those who blame the failure of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on Michael Cera’s excessively dorky schtick will find it here, and that’s where most were first exposed to it. I wonder if the same applies to Ellen Page, to a lesser degree, as she seems to have got her own little niche going. Those who found Jennifer’s Body to be a horror film for all the wrong reasons can trace back a lot of Diablo Coady’s writing tics to this particular film. In fact, even Jason Reitman himself seems to have generated some substantial on-line hatedom and criticism, all of which could be reflected back to his breakout film.

Of course, it’s also possible that I’m being unduly defensive. Perhaps there were some very serious flaws in the film that everybody missed the first time around – perhaps it is genuinely the opposite of the sort revisionism that leads us to praise films that received a thorough critical rejection on initial release. Maybe the charm wasn’t really that charming. Maybe the film was just a film “of that time”, if that makes sense – maybe it’s so rooted in 2007 somehow that it’s lost its resonance in 2011. I don’t know.

Maybe it's all up in the air...

I just find it fascinating. Personally, I still rate the film as highly as I did on initially catching it, all those years ago. Though maybe I’ll feel differently in a few years.

2 Responses

  1. I think the haters miss about Juno is that underneath the quirky, stylized surface is a film that depicts a very realistic and honest depiction of a cocky, “too-cool-for-school” teenager dealing with a pregnancy crisis. I actually like the movie’s quirky charm, but there there is plenty of reality-reflecting substance to chew on that makes it a great film.

  2. I think we all cringe a little at the dialogue occasionally, but as Justin mentions, it’s a real look at a real teenager who is pregnant. How often is that covered with any realism?

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