The curse of Napoleon Dynamite strikes again. Ever since that afro’d geek took pop culture and the box office by storm in the summer of 2004, it seems independent cinema has been mobbed with writers and directors who think weird equals cool and funny. I was not excessively fond of Dynamite and while I like Junebug slightly better, in many ways it has some of the same shortcomings.
The story follows Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a British art dealer who specializes in offbeat, undiscovered art. She meets George (Alessandro Nivola), whom she marries after a whirlwind romance of only a few weeks. Six months into their new marriage, Madeleine discovers a “brilliant” artist in the deep backwoods of the south—and wouldn’t you know it, that artist lives just a hop, skip and a jump away from George’s too-whacked-out-for-words family. Dad (Scott Wilson) is shy to the point of catatonia; Mom (Celia Weston) is a hard-edged matriarch with little patience or warmth; brother Johnny (The OC’s Benjamin McKenzie) is an emotionally immature underachiever whose chatterbox girlfriend (Amy Adams) is eight months pregnant with their first child. Will Madeleine seal the deal with her racist, borderline-insane painter prodigy? Will George’s family overcome their kooky angst to become closer? Will anyone care one way or the other?
Junebug tests your patience in more ways than one. The art subplot never really works and feels extremely contrived. Furthermore, the film shakily walks the line between revering the down-home culture of George’s hometown and mocking it. Are we supposed to think these people are a bunch of hick freaks or likeable salt-of-the-earth folks? The film never really decides, in part because it isn’t sure whose story it is. Often, it seems to focus on Davidtz’s character, which is a mistake, because we never feel close to her. The focus on Madeleine prevents it from becoming a true ensemble piece, so the film is always awkwardly off-balance.
As Madeleine, Davidtz (most recognizable for her work in Schindler’s List) does not add much to her vaguely written character. We can’t ever really tell if she’s sweet or just a coy opportunist. Nivola is equally blank as George, the family favorite. He and Davidtz have lots of sex, occasionally quite graphically, to presumably suggest that they compensate for not knowing each other very well by their vigorous physical chemistry. Yet, the actors are so distant and bland, I hardly cared whether they found true love in each other or not. Weston, as the hard-ass mom, is good in a difficult role. While not terribly sympathetic, she creates one of the more human characters in the story. McKenzie is also surprisingly good in a role that’s about as un-OC as they come.
The main reason I watched Junebug was to find out if Amy Adams deserved her Best Supporting Actress nomination. She does, and she’s the best reason to watch the film. She manages to play a desperate character without seeming irritating or weak. She’s the heart and soul of this freak show and she’s captivating every minute she’s on screen (so much so that she is sorely missed when her character is absent from the story). Rachel Weisz has emerged as an early favorite in the Supporting Actress category for her work in the WAY-overrated The Constant Gardener. She’s good, and she deserves the nomination, but I would love to see the underdog Adams win. Her performance is terrific and makes the film better than it deserves to be.
Lest you think that Junebug is a total dog, I should point out that it gets better as it goes along. The family relationships become more intriguing and, in many ways, the film is very adept at communicating character and relationships without dialogue. In the end, Junebug is perhaps all the more unsatisfying because of its improvements. The audience can see the potential in the story, particularly when anchored by Adams. The fact that the film doesn’t live up to her performance makes Junebug even more of a disappointment.
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