Judge Brendan Babish is astounded that this film was even made (and he means that in a good way).
Madeleine: I was born in Japan.
In the midst of America's culture war between the red and blue states comes a timely movie about a liberal gal from Chicago and her first visit to the conservative in-laws from North Carolina.
Facts of the Case
Madeline (Embeth Davidtz, The Emperor's Club) owns an art gallery in Chicago. During an auction to benefit Jesse Jackson Jr. she catches the eye of a hunky art connoisseur, George (Alessandro Nivola, Jurassic Park III). After a whirlwind romance the two marry. George, who hails from a rustic town in North Carolina, invites his family to the wedding, but they decline to attend. Six months later Madeline travels to North Carolina to visit an eccentric painter (Frank Hoyt Taylor). George tags along and they decide to drop in on the in-laws.
Within minutes of their meeting, George's family forms intractable opinions on Madeline. George's mother utterly despises her. His brother lusts after her. His sister-in-law idolizes her. And his father seems more concerned with finding a lost screwdriver than getting to know his son's wife. Yet plucky Madeline soldiers on, much like Gaylord Focker in Meet the Parents, gamely working to curry favor from a family who has difficulty showing affection to each other, much less outsiders.
While watching Junebug I couldn't stifle a recurring thought: How did this movie ever get made? I wasn't wondering because the movie is poor; far from it. Junebug is a lovely little movie. I try to refrain from describing movies as "lovely," but really, no other word is more apt. Junebug is such a pure, honest movie about real people from real places that I couldn't imagine a Hollywood studio (even an independent one) ever financing it.
It certainly didn't surprise me that Junebug's screenwriter, Angus MacLachlan, hasn't had any of his work produced in the past 15 years. Again, not because of the quality of his script; the script is magnificent. Rather, I think any writer who is even semi-regularly employed in Hollywood knows enough to sneak in a murder or a spaceship landing or some sort of hook to bring an audience in. Alternatively, MacLachlan (who hails from North Carolina) could have used this movie to grind a political ax. George's family could have been a bunch of uneducated bumpkins, with portraits of Jesus bedecking the walls, and an old car propped up on cinder blocks in the front yard (considering Hollywood's liberal bent, this sort of portrayal may have even helped secure financing). Alternatively, MacLachlan could have made Madeline an arrogant and condescending liberal, who mocks her in-laws' religious beliefs and countrified bearings. MacLachlan resisted these temptations, which is a marvel in these days of entrenched partisanship, and the movie benefits largely from his impartiality.
Scattered throughout Junebug are scenes depicting the quiet dignity of American pastoral life (much like TV's King of the Hill): an old man patiently watches an air mattress inflate; a father and son bond while examining the engine of a car; and in a particularly moving scenes, George sings a church hymnal with two locals providing harmony. In a lesser film, the urbanized George would be embarrassed by the song's overt religiousness and Madeline would find the whole thing silly, something to videotape and show the friends back home for a laugh, perhaps. In Junebug, when George sings we get goose bumps; Madeline nearly cries. While the movie exposes the faults of George's family, it never stoops to taking cheap shots.
Oddly enough, the character that comes closest to being a caricature is actually the movie's most memorable. Ashley (Amy Adams, The Wedding Date) is the chatty wife of George's detached brother, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie, The OC). Ashley is prominent in Junebug's trailer, due largely to Amy Adams' incredible performance, but also to the character's amusing and cloying sound bites. Ashley is simple, straightforward, curious and desperate for affection. She is like a big puppy, and shows the same inquisitive enthusiasm for Madeline with which canines examine each other at a dog park. Though Adams plays the character broadly, her performance never rings false. And while many of the movie's biggest laughs originate with Ashley, she is never the butt of a joke. MacLachlan's treatment of her is indicative of the dignity that imbues all the characters in the film. In nine out of ten movies, an uneducated chatterbox like Ashley would be reduced to pure comic relief. In Junebug, we see how desperately she just wants to have a friend. We see her staying up at night pining for her husband. We see the sadness behind the incessant banter.
While Junebug is a comedy, its humor differs from the similarly-themed Meet the Parents. While Meet the Parents is genuinely funny, it is only a caricature of that ancient rite of seeking approval from your in-laws. Its penchants for absurdity (dinner table discussions about milking cats, Ben Stiller rigged up to a Polygraph machine) prevent it from ever working effectively as a drama (not that it ever really tries to). Like Meet the Parents, Junebug seems carefully crafted to mine most of its humor from discomfort. Unlike Meet the Parents, Junebug works very hard to keep the action authentic, to create genuine characters, to explain their actions, to help us empathize with them. That is why it's ultimately such an affecting movie. Like life, there are no hurried resolutions or manufactured merriment. And also like life, there is humor and sadness that ultimately adds up to a satisfying experience. On the commentary track, Amy Adams describes watching the film for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. "I just remember smiling," she says. That pretty much sums it up for me, too.
Sony has done a commendable job putting together a tidy DVD for such a small movie. The picture is clean and the sound is clear. The commentary track with Amy Adams and Embeth Davidtz is not particularly informative, but it is fun to hear them coo with pleasure over nearly every scene in the movie. If you don't like the movie, their commentary is apt to be far less enjoyable. There are over a dozen deleted scenes, though most seem like improv sessions that didn't really lead anywhere. Then there are a half dozen featurettes. These are too short to be especially illuminating, but it is a hoot to see director Phil Morrison's bushy handlebar mustache. It's even better than Rollie Fingers', and nearly on par with Chester A. Arthur's.
Those who despair at the current state of Hollywood movies—namely their reliance on conventional storylines and special effects, i.e. Stealth—should see Junebug. Supporting smart, restrained films like Junebug is the most effective way to combat the stagnation that affects nearly every major studio movie released before Oscar season.
That said, if you saw Stealth and loved it, I'm not sure if you would enjoy the subtle pleasures of Junebug. Maybe. I don't know. Go see it and let me know.
Not guilty. Now go see it. Or Stealth. It's time to choose.
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