Junebug


In honor and anticipation of the forthcoming release of Enchanted, I'm reposting this in-depth DVD review of Amy Adams' breakthrough flick, Junebug, which I don't believe IGN ever got around to actually running, perhaps because my use of the words meritorious and milieu don't jibe with their editorial mission. At any rate...

That a single revelatory performance is enough to mask narrative familiarities or flaws is a point not open to debate. See last year’s Ray and, more recently, Walk the Line and (most egregiously) Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica if you doubt. Still, Junebug is an interesting case, in that its memorable turn comes within the framework of an ensemble.



The performance of Amy Adams (above), who won a Special Dramatic Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Festival for her robust, memorable supporting work, is a prime example of a performance in search of a movie that deserves its efforts. Scripted by playwright Angus MacLachlan and helmed in a languorous fashion by commercial and music video director Phil Morrison (a bushy-moustache ringer for Charles Manson, as the supplemental material reveals), Junebug is the rare movie that achieves complete authenticity of atypical setting yet still comes across as unrealistic in almost all of its interactions. It’s a willfully stilted and pandering cinematic indulgence — original but not meritorious.

Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) is a British-born, Chicago museum curator specializing in “outsider art,” quirky work from unheralded and undiscovered regional talents. When she gets the chance to investigate a North Carolina artist specializing in bizarre, Civil War-themed panel painting, she and her younger husband George (Alessandro Nivola) extend the visit to include a trip to see his semi-estranged family, which is comprised of prickly mother Peg (Celia Weston), withdrawn but kindly father Eugene (Scott Wilson), surly younger brother Johnny (The O.C.’s Benjamin McKenzie, reaching for indie cred relevance with a performance running second in petulance only to Jon Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite — except that that was for laughs), and Johnny’s pregnant and innocently garrulous live-in girlfriend Ashley (a pitch-perfect Adams, her wide eyes and tongue-pressed-to-teeth smile a perfect representation of unblinking naïveté). While George — ever his father’s son — withdraws into a cocoon of reticence during the trip (perhaps the result of neither MacLachan nor Morrison knowing what to do with his character), Madeleine endears herself to the extremely friendly Ashley, and she deeply to her.

A movie of much meandering indulgence (it is the South, after all, so everything must move slowly), Junebug grates far more than it illuminates; it’s an indistinct tone poem that falsely wears its down-dressed rhythms as profundity. Morrison and editor Joe Klotz cut between scenes in a completely arbitrary fashion, and the various relationships run so hot and cold — with George disappearing for a vast stretch of the movie — that we’re never quite sure why anyone is acting the way they are. That George is the made-good brother who “escaped” is never in doubt (a beautiful church social scene where he’s recruited to sing a hymnal confirms this), but there’s a marked difference between discord or strained familial relationships and the extremely sullen and uncommunicative ones on display here, wherein each character at least once pauses, turns around and walks away when directly addressed with a “thank you” or other words of gratitude. Rarely have I seen a milieu so painstakingly established at the same time ring so inherently false.

In Junebug, Southern compatriots Morrison and MacLachlan seem to be reaching for ephemeral grace notes more than overarching clarity, but the mesmerizing performance of Adams isn’t transcendental — it seems to exist in a vacuum independent of the rest of the film. I liked this movie a bit more the second time around than the first, and it plays better on the small screen, but honestly, Junebug feels like the filmmakers watched the work of David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls) and tried to willfully inject it with aloofness and empty quirk.

The film’s indie heartthrob status is further elucidated over the course of a nice array of bonus material on this single disc, housed in a regular Amray case. Junebug’s 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video presentation is superb, with director of photography Peter Donahue’s uncluttered frames achieving crystal clarity. There are no problems with artifact or grain, and while the movie’s overall color palette is relatively subdued, its greys and blues are nicely differentiated. The film’s use of natural lighting is nice, too, as in the scene of Madeleine and George’s initial arrival. Presented in an English Dolby digital 5.0 soundtrack, Junebug’s audio is nicely balanced and for the most part clear and straightforward. Original music by Yo La Tengo is nicely married to the narrative in a fairly non-intrusive manner, but my only complaint is that there’s not a lot done with the audio mix in terms of ambient effects and background noise. While the film visually captures the South, it eschews much aural effort. The aforementioned church scene is an example of where this native silence works quite well, racking focus clearly on the sweet, heart-rending vocals, but for a movie ostensibly about alienation and disconnect, there are many scenes — Johnny sitting in the kitchen when the rest of the family rushes out to meet George and Madeleine, for instance, or a late-act scene between Ashley and George at the hospital — where the audio is just flat.

A billed five-part, behind-the-scenes featurette is actually merely a collection of actor interviews broken down by character. These are interesting, but not necessarily material you will revisit, though it does include outtake footage of Nivola practicing for his hymnal. More intriguing are two casting session tapes, which provide seven minutes of McKenzie and 13 minutes of Adams. For the latter in particular, given the achievement of her performance, it’s interesting to see both how quickly she dialed in on the character and the minor tweaks and revisions that further shaded her portrayal of Ashley. A collection of 10 deleted scenes follows. Most are snippets, but there’s one that lends even more credence to Johnny’s swallowed rage. I wouldn’t say it makes McKenzie’s performance markedly better, but it does add a bit more shading, similar to the scene in which he tries to record a TV show about meerkats (Ashley’s favorite animal) and flies off the handle when he cannot set up the VCR in time.

The disc’s piece de resistance, though, is a joint audio commentary track from Adams and Davidtz. Recorded together, the two share production anecdotes, recount Davidtz’s eleventh-hour casting (she’s a friend of Nivola and his wife, Emily Mortimer) and have fun with pop-up trivia-type tidbits (self-confesses Adams at one point, “That’s me actually itching a mosquito bite”). Both analytical and funny (since the film opened opposite The Dukes of Hazzard, Adams suggests that Ashley’s pregnancy shorts should have been more prominently featured in the advertising campaign), this offering dispels the frequently deserved stereotype of boring actor commentary tracks.

Bottom line: Again, Amy Adams is what’s most to love here, though the degree to which she influences the final judgment between bearable treat and interesting failure will depend heartily on your threshold for empty quirk. That Junebug has been hailed by most critics is only further evidence of the growing culture gap in this country, and between those that produce and comment on entertainment and those that live in the interstices of its occasional settings. Again, merely being different doesn’t always equal good, and unfolding in a place rarely visited doesn’t make Junebug wise or bittersweet. C (Movie) B+ (Disc)

 

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