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It’s been a little over a decade since the release of director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody’s first collaboration, Juno (2007). With that movie, the pair set the independent film world ablaze; the little picture that could evolved into nothing short of a cultural phenomenon in North America, culminating in Oscar glory. The Ellen Page–starring story of a pregnant, precocious teenager was a hit with audiences young and old alike; tapped into the moody, twee teenage sensibilities of modern-day high schoolers; and even found its way into the heart of mainstream film critics, who hailed it as one of the year’s best movies. Its influence spread far and wide within the American independent cinema scene, leading to subsequent years of quirky copycat pictures that didn’t receive nearly the same level of audience adoration. An underdog success to the tune of $231 million worldwide, Juno seemingly buoyed as many careers as it outright ignited.
Reitman and Cody went on to collaborate for a second time on the black comedy Young Adult (2011), before returning to the bread-and-butter maternity-picture format of Juno with the recent Tully. With each subsequent release, the pair has seen diminishing returns, both financially and in the quality of the films, inspiring questions about the viability of their working relationship. Cody, for her part, has proven she can stand on her own two feet as a screenwriter outside of Reitman. She penned the wonderful Ricki and the Flash (2015), about an aging, politically conservative rockstar-wannabe (Meryl Streep); the material proved a perfect fit for the musically inclined (and dearly departed) Jonathan Demme. Additionally, Cody wrote the bloody female adolescent picture Jennifer’s Body (2009), with a Courtney Love–quoting title and a cast of hot up-and-coming actors (Amanda Seyfried, Megan Fox). It wasn’t a hit with audiences, but that movie provided yet another sterling match between screenwriter and director; Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), being one of the more talented horror filmmakers currently working, totally understood Cody’s script, amplifying the horrors of teenage girlhood with disquieting authenticity. Likewise, Demme’s sense of rhythm, space, and timing elevated Ricki from a potential exercise in cornball schmaltz to a complicated picture of a pariah whose only major sin was chasing her own dream.
Clearly, when Cody is paired with directors who know how to compartmentalize her broader, goofier strokes and supplement her inner, complicated truths about women, her work soars. But as time has proven again and again, Reitman is not among their number. He doesn’t have the instincts to dig into Cody’s work beyond a surface level, keeping the deeper resonances of her scripting at bay.
Reitman’s greatest weakness as a director is his penchant for anonymity. There is nothing inherently cinematic about what he brings to the table: a barrage of dialogue-reliant two-shots in which the words are rarely allowed to linger or gestate. It’s an approach that would be par for the course on cable television, but in the cinema feels small, ordinary, and, worst of all, bland. It’s damning, and telling, that Reitman’s non-Cody work has been roundly disastrous: the awkward period piece Labor Day (2013) and the convoluted sex-in-the-age-of-social-media survey Men, Women, and Children (2014) are both so poorly achieved as to not even be fit for a drunken, late-night Netflix fling. At his absolute best, Reitman is like the Diet Pepsi version of James L. Brooks.
He does manage inspired moments in Juno, which juggles a half-dozen-ish well-written women with an empathetic streak for just about everybody, while keeping the point of view firmly in the hands of our delightful hamburger-phone-owning teenager, Juno MacGuff (Page). Reitman’s visual choices have never contained more dexterity and meaning than here, with the chatty two-shots given more space and weight through angular, determined p.o.v. framing. One of the strongest sequences sees Juno, with quippy dad (J.K. Simmons) in tow, visiting the would-be adoptive parents (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) of her unborn fetus. The quartet, with a lawyer (Eileen Pedde) present, hash out a conversation on how serious Juno is about giving up the child, while also alluding to payment, wants, and needs. Reitman shoots the scene for maximum coverage, so as to not miss any of his actors working through the rich material; a few stray gestures prove powerful to this day. One such image is of Garner’s Vanessa reacting to Juno offhandedly telling her she’s lucky she doesn’t have to deal with the blood and guts of pregnancy. Garner’s startling reaction lingers long enough to unsettle the prevailing tone of chipper cordiality. It’s an image of deep sadness, conveying Vanessa’s feeling of emptiness and the void within her due to her inability to become pregnant, despite wanting it more than anything in the world. This moment gets a response later in the film, as Vanessa holds the baby for the first time. She’s overwhelmed, shocked, scared; in the blocking, Reitman catches Juno’s stepmom, Brenda (Alison Janney), watching Vanessa hold the child with a glowing look of contentment and warmth. Vanessa asks Brenda, “How do I look?,” and Brenda replies, “Like a new mom: scared shitless.” It’s precisely the kind of layered, script-embellishing callback that Reitman rarely works into his oeuvre.
That sort of visual engagement goes almost completely out of the window in the next Reitman–Cody film, Young Adult; in its place are empty-headed broad strokes. It’s a shame that Young Adult isn’t stronger, because it’s Cody’s best-written work, centered on her most complicated, difficult lead character. The title is an ironic joke, playing off the fact that Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a bitchy, thirty-seven-year-old teenager, ghost-writing a YA series that’s already been completely laid out for her. Reitman takes an unfortunate cue from his creatively stifled heroine, directing the script with little to no input beyond lifting the words and putting them into straightforward images. There is no “scared shitless” moment in Young Adult — instead, potentially powerful beats flutter away into nothing. Unhinged and prone to outbursts, Mavis calls for an active eye in the way Gena Rowlands was filmed in John Cassavetes movies like A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night, but Reitman’s images fail to capitalize on her furious energy. A brief moment where Mavis states that she might be an alcoholic in front of her parents lands with no force, despite drinking being a heavily articulated theme of Cody’s script. The image remains crisp, clean, devoid of texture — as perfectly put-together as Mavis’s Ralph Lauren dresses, clip-on hair extensions, and mascara. The saving grace of Young Adult is Theron — it might be her best performance — but that too only makes it more discouraging that the direction couldn’t keep up with her.
To worsen matters, Tully — which was released on May 4 — is by far the weakest script Cody has delivered, reliant on a late-act twist that undermines the filmmaking and the sincerity of everything that comes beforehand. Mackenzie Davis plays a dreamy night nanny named Tully, whose services offer Marlo (Charlize Theron) a chance to reconnect with her body and her self after her third pregnancy. The actors play off each other wonderfully, and Reitman, to his credit, catches their body language and conversational rhythm with an encouraging interest in what these women are saying. Their dialogue and even the material on pregnancy and raising a newborn has depth and clarity, showing life with a baby for everything beautiful and challenging that parenting brings. Almost none of this lands ultimately, though, because in hindsight everything that Tully and Marlo go through is a cat-and-mouse game in which Cody holds back her script’s structural secret for as long as she feels like. Far from a powerful rug-pull, the method comes across as insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. The film proudly wears the confessional relationship between these women on its sleeve, only to undo its power through Reitman’s shy filmmaking and Cody’s faux-grandeur. Cody is not a perfect screenwriter, but she’s more than capable of producing promising material; her best films require directors to minimize her gimmicky habits in favor of the greater heart of the script. Reitman has no such filter: From the beginning, he’s been the kind of director who merely shoots the script. Three films in, one has to wonder why that approach stands as such an appealing proposition for a writer who has achieved sturdier heights with other collaborators.