Coming up babies

Oh, fictional unwanted fetuses, little prom queens of Cinema ’07 — you didn’t ask for all this attention. You didn’t apply to be sired by Seth Rogen; in your dark gestation, you didn’t perceive of a life spent baking pie after pie after fucking pie with Keri Russell; you didn’t dream of being pushed through Ellen Page’s birth canal into the arms of Jennifer Garner. But you were — and we thank you. Because you know what: You’ve given us something to debate. Or your sperm-and-egg donors have — you know, those crazos who voted condoms the least-popular accessory of last year. Or maybe their parents: The directors and out-of-work writers who really conceived you.

They’ve put me in the position of disagreeing with the only person I’ve ever proposed to in print: The New York Times’ co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis.

The passage I take issue with can be found in her NYT year-in-film summation, in which she hastily (though quite beautifully) likens the Diablo Cody-penned Juno to Judd Apatow’s “a little sexist” (to quote star Katherine Heigl)
Knocked Up:

“Juno has easy laughs, dodges abortion quicker than a presidential candidate and provides a supremely artful male fantasy. Like Knocked Up it pivots on a fertile hottie who has sex without protection and, after a little emotional messiness (and no scary diseases), delivers one baby and adopts a second, namely the man-child who (also) misplaced the Trojans. Both comedies
superficially recall the male wish-fulfillment fantasies of Sideways, but without the lacerating adult self-awareness.”

I wonder, firstly, when Dargis decided to skewer Juno for its alleged abortion-dodging, why she neglected to also pick on the late Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, which does less to acknowledge its central fertile hottie’s choice than do either of the two films on filet.

As individuals much cleverer than myself have established, the triune of hotties must carry their pregnancies to term for each of the stories to work as comedies. Be that as it may, we would hope, in a world of perfect screenplays, to have some coherent deliberation on the part of these contemporary fictional femmes, some elucidation as to why each woman keeps her unintended pregnancy, and I would argue that Juno’s process is the most

In Waitress, Jenna’s simple, unexplained “respect” for her unborn child’s “right to thrive” doesn’t jibe with her open resentment for it up until the very moment that Lulu, as she unfortunately christens her daughter, is born. Knocked Up’s Alison takes no time at all to reject the option of a shmushmortion, or “getting ‘it’ taken care of,” in a conversation with her mother over a meal. Only Juno gestates the alternative, the lone lady to actually enter an abortion clinic, having meditated on what a full-term pregnancy would mean to her, a 16-year-old, and then finding that she can’t go through with it (if for an unusual reason — fingernails are kind of an uncanny preoccupation for the oh-so-huggable MacGuffs). Somehow, Juno’s filmmakers managed to make that sequence not only thoughtful but darkly funny, which causes one to wonder why Apatow, of all people, didn’t have the balls to go there.

Perhaps it is because Mr. Apatow struggles with writing three-dimensional roles for his female characters (Waitress would illustrate the opposite problem), which brings me to Knocked Up and Juno as male fantasies.

Critics have praised Knocked Up as a Good Movie With Mass Appeal: The story of a childish (in the worst sense), unemployed, schlubby, perpetually stoned young man’s drunken night with a beautiful, upwardly mobile woman that turns into a potentially lifelong attachment thanks to a verbal misunderstanding about contraception and her determination to love someone whom she was appalled by “the morning after,” is, clearly, a male fantasy (especially the part where Ben, an illegal alien from Canada, magically gets a web-design job at the end). (Yes, I know it’s just a movie.)

Juno, on the other hand, is a movie about a teenage girl who, in a fully sentient state, suggests having unprotected sex (with her best friend, Paulie, a virginal Michael Cera —
probably less likely to be transferring scary diseases than Rogen’s Knocked Up character, incidentally) and then chooses to manage the consequences without the aid of her part-time lover, arranging for a nice, suburban couple to adopt “the thing.”

Sure, I can imagine the idea of a woman disposing of a fetus (by abortion or delivery and adoption) on her own would be attractive to some men — he doesn’t pay, as she does, for their mutual recklessness — but a wish-fulfillment fantasy? Is it really every pubescent boy’s dearest desire to lose his sort-of girlfriend, then, after seven months of being ignored and pushed aside, have her come back all post-prego and shit? Come on.

Briefly, thirdly, to suggest that Juno, too, is adopting a second child is preposterous; she is just a child herself. (And four, thank God neither Juno nor Knocked Up utilizes the overcooked wine metaphors of Sideways. Yelch.)

But on a grander scale than a mere divergence betwixt two film critics, what struck me about Juno immediately, something I think we can all agree upon, is how rare it is for a non-romcom to feature a female as the totally killing comedic lead, especially in the Age of Apatow. Heigl’s much-hyped Vanity Fair quote pretty much sums up the situation: “`Knocked Up` paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. … I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy?”

In fact, Juno relies on a range of women’s perspectives for both comic and dramatic effect. Even Jennifer Garner’s I-was-born-to-be-a-mommy character, an archetype that I generally find repugnant and grating onscreen, reduced me to tears during my second viewing. Go figure. Conversely, Waitress — the most feminine through-and-through of the bunch — a movie which I love/hate with the kind of love/hate fervor I reserve especially for Jeremy Sisto, irked me the second time through: Of all the I’m-birthing-you-dammit fetus’s futures, this is the one I worried most for, because it has nothing to look forward to but a life of mother-daughter codependence.

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