Sunday, April 16, 2006

Review - Junebug

Can a single performance change one’s perception of a whole film? Certainly in the case of Junebug, one performance - a sensational, radiant turn from Amy Adams - takes this rather underpowered slice of southern whimsy and wrestles it into something which is almost worth seeing. Junebug is a family reunion comedy-drama, the likes of which we’ve seen a numerous times before. A young man takes his successful wife from Chicago back to the small country town where he grew up, and their city lives could hardly be more different from the way his family and their neighbours live. Surely, we imagine, it is only a matter of time before this cultural mismatch leads to comical situations and sparks flying; but in Junebug they never really do.

Alessandro Nivola has the role of prodigal son here. He is George, a handsome young man who left his hometown in North Carolina three years ago to work in Chicago, although we never learn what exactly he does for a living. Perhaps he is connected to the art world in some way? After all, the film does open at an auction, which is being run by Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), and it’s here that she first lays eyes on George. Before the opening credits have begun George and Madeleine are in each other’s arms, and by the time film starts properly they’re married! “Where did you come from?” Madeleine asks as George kisses her against a wall. Well, she’s about to find out.

Madeleine is on her way out to North Carolina to try and sign up a reclusive artist who would fit in with her ‘outsider art’ gallery, and while they’re out there George takes his wife to meet the family. There’s his parents, passive dad Eugene (Scott Wilson) and suspicious mother Peg (Celia Weston), and his surly brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie). There’s a slight tension in the air, and clearly some bad blood between Johnny and George, but one member of the family is thrilled to see the visitors and welcomes Madeleine with open arms; Johnny’s heavily pregnant wife Ashley.

Ashley is a chatty, ridiculously upbeat, permanently optimistic young woman and she is played by Amy Adams in an utterly beguiling, ultimately heartbreaking way. The film, pedestrian and lazy for much of its opening twenty minutes, suddenly ignites as soon as she appears on the screen; her tangible excitement at George and Madeleine’s impending arrival lends a real comic energy to proceedings. Ashley instantly sees the sophisticated Madeleine as a soul mate, overpowering her with a barrage of questions as soon as she walks through the door. “I was born in Japan” Madeleine states as she attempts to answer some of Ashley’s queries, “you were not!” squeals an astonished Ashley, her eyes widening like saucers with delight and bewilderment. As far as Ashley is concerned, the exotic Madeleine may as well have been born on a distant planet.

This role is something of a test. A chatterbox like Ashley, full of genuine goodness and innocence, could quickly become an irritating character, but Adams pulls it off. When Madeleine tells her that she enjoyed reading and horseback riding as a child Ashley asks “at the same time?” - in Ashley’s eyes, Madeleine is capable of anything. Her idolisation of George’s big-city wife is sweet and touchingly portrayed, as is her devotion to her husband, despite receiving very little love in return. Adams takes a role which could have been little more than comic relief, and invests it with such heart that she becomes the most well-rounded character on show.

Junebug was written by playwright Angus MacLachlan, only his second screenplay in 15 years, and it seems light on details. MacLachlan clearly hopes that the viewer will be willing to fill in many of the gaps themselves, but a number of the characters are so frustratingly opaque they make audience identification extremely hard. Take Alessandro Nivola‘s George, for example. It’s his family we’re visiting, and yet he is absent for much of the film, offering little more than an enigmatic smile when he is present. There is clearly something in the past which is making his return a little fraught, but it remains tantalisingly out of reach. George’s absence for large periods leaves something of a void in the film, a piece of the puzzle which has been thrown away to prevent us from putting it all together.

Nivola is a talented actor but he is hamstrung by poor characterisation here. The rest of the cast is strong, with Celia Weston making an strong impression as Peg; and it was nice to see MacLachlan and take care over the portrayal of Madeleine. In many films such as this it would have been easy paint her as the uptight, self-obsessed with from the city, but Madeleine really does try (admittedly in an occasionally ham-fisted way) to make a connection with the family, and it seems a bit rich of the aloof George to chastise her late on for chasing a business deal instead of coming to the hospital for the birth of Ashley’s baby.

Madeleine is desperate to sign painter David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor), a near autistic artist living in a tiny shack whose revisionist, sexually explicit images of the Civil War are taken as masterpieces by the art dealer. Taylor’s performance as Wark is quite remarkable, speaking in a stream of consciousness about the way his pictures came to him in a vision. He paints the black slaves uprising against their owners, each of them displaying a huge erection, and each of them also with a white face; he claims he cannot paint a black man’s face because he has never seen one. Aside from Ashley, Wark is the only character who really gains the viewers’ interest. Again, he’s a character who could have slid into stereotype but who remains convincing thanks to a fascinating portrayal.

Junebug often seems in danger of patronising small town folk, but it thankfully never crosses that line. Phil Morrison’s curious direction seems intent on placing us into the slower paced rhythm of southern life; he often fills the time between scenes by letting his camera settle, Ozu-style, on empty rooms, or allowing the sound from one scene to bleed across into another. This approach occasionally works to hypnotic effect, but more often than not it only serves to make things appear overly ponderous and flat. Patience is the watchword for viewers of Junebug, and I’m not sure the rewards are ultimately worth the wait.

Junebug does contain some superb scenes. One in particular, a scene in which George is forced to sing a hymn, is one of the year’s best - a wonderfully affecting sequence which Morrison allows to play out in its own time. There are beautiful touches here and there throughout the film, with the director displaying some acute observation and a keen ear for dialogue; and Adams’ display shines like a beacon in every scene she appears in. But Junebug never really adds up to much. It never threatens to go into any unexpected territory and it simply gives us a cinematic scenario we’re all familiar with, only offering a superficially different filmmaking slant on things.

The question remains, is it worth seeing for Amy Adams alone? I think it is. Junebug is her film; it’s a truly lovely performance which will live in my memory when the rest of the film has faded away. When she’s on screen you simply can’t take your eyes away from her, and when she’s not there she’s sorely missed.