Reel Talk

February 11, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Just about everyone I know adores Juno. They don't all think it should win Best Picture, but they agree it's one of the most enjoyable movie experiences out there. All except one. He believes it's overrated and the more accolades it gets, the more he seems to sour on it. His main complaint has to do with the dialogue. Too clever. Too scripted. Not at all "how real people talk." I have read something similar in Roger Ebert's "Ask the Answer Man" column. And, for me, this enters into the kennel of one of my pet peeves.

Juno is not meant to be a reflection of real life. This isn't Ken Loach or one of the many disciples who have adopted his warts-and-all approach to filmmaking. This is a lighthearted fantasy/comedy that exists in a pale, idealized imitation of our universe. In other words, it's like 99.9% of the comedies out there. What Juno gives us are endearing characters, an interesting situation, and dialogue that's appropriate for both. Sure, there are a few awkward moments (especially during the opening convenience store scene) when things don't quite "click" but, for the most part, I can believe that a bright, hip girl is saying these things in this movie even though the logic center of my brain might argue that no one I have ever known has talked exactly like that. As to the argument that the dialogue is too "clever," I have two things to say. First, I'd rather listen to clever dialogue than banal or clich├ęd conversations. It would seem more fruitful to complain about stupid dialogue. There's enough of that around. Second, generally anything other than "clever" isn't going to get me to laugh (unless the inanity of the lines are such that the movie enters the realm of the unintentionally comedic).

The fact is, when I go to a movie, unless I'm in search of a particularly realistic experience, I don't want to hear people talk like my next door neighbor or my boss. I want to hear clean, smart, clever dialogue. I don't want to hear "ahems" and "likes" and throat clearing, which are all parts of everyday conversations. Occasionally a movie delivers this and it's annoying as hell. Real dialogue is people not finishing sentences. No punctuation. Bad pronunciation. Awkward pauses and coughs. When you're involved in it in real life, it often passes without notice. But it's a different thing when you're watching it on screen. Does anyone want to be subjected to that?

When people complain about dialogue not sounding real, I think it's the flow of the words more than the words themselves that viewers are reacting to. David Mamet is a classic example of a director who has a very specific way in which he wants his characters to talk. His clipped, staccato method drives many viewers up the walls but others love it. It's a matter of taste and there are people who dislike Mamet because his characters "don't talk the way real people talk." But this is a movie, not real life, and Mamet's cadences can become almost hypnotic if you let them. It's like Shakespeare. When was the last time someone complained about people in Shakespeare not sounding like they do in real life?

Yet the criticism persists for Juno. When it comes down to it, I think the problem some viewers have with the movie isn't that the dialogue doesn't sound "real" or that there's a problem with the flow, but that we're so unused to teenagers saying such smart, self-aware things that it boggles the mind. There has never been a movie teenager quite like Juno. At times, she seems almost too good to be true. Yet when I was that age, I knew two girls who were a lot like her (neither was pregnant; I don't know whether either was sexually active, whatever that means). They were smart, they were nice, they could make you laugh, and they could cut you to shreds with a well-placed barb. I suppose they spoke like "real people," but in my mind's ear, listening back through the echoes of 25 years, they sound a lot like Juno.

I'm not advocating that all dialogue in movies be given a pass. Some of it is just badly written. Some is purple prose. But no one is going to label that sort of thing "too clever." They'll use words that might be found in a thesaurus under the "antonym" category for "clever." And there are times when "clever" dialogue seems forced and out-of-character (usually when a writer is showing off), but those are the proverbial exceptions rather than the rules, and I can't find many examples in Juno (except during the aforementioned convenience store scene, which works less for me each time I see it).

I'm less concerned about the words than the way in which they're delivered. "Realistic" doesn't have to do with how LCD (least common denominator) the language is but whether it's delivered in a convincing, natural manner with a flow that mimics real speech patterns. That's a lot different than "real dialogue." Good actors can smooth over a lot of bad scripting. If you want to argue that you don't like Ellen Page's delivery, we'll have to agree to disagree since that's a matter or preference. (I happen to think she's perfect, or nearly so.) On the other hand, if your argument is that you have a problem with Juno's lack of believable dialogue, I'll just roll my eyes and pop a couple of orange tic-tacs.