During graduate studies in English many years ago, I came to love certain academic books, the first of which was Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism . Frye, who applied archetypal analysis to classic literature, labeled comic drama as “the mythos of spring,” a celebration of a new order filled with the vigor of fresh life. He observed that “the watcher of death and tragedy has nothing to do but sit and wait for the inevitable end; but something gets born at the end of comedy.” During the past year, three new films ended with something (or rather, someone) being born, quite literally. In each case, the baby’s conception is a surprise to its parents and not exactly a happy one. Each film’s plot revolves around a mother’s decision to bear a child while dealing with other issues in her life, and each also employs its own language and imagery to celebrate the power, the beauty and the joy of human life.
Waitress , released last May, recounts the woes of an attractive young waitress, Jenna (Keri Russell), who finds herself pregnant by her abusive husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto). The pregnancy complicates her plans to save enough money to leave her husband, but she never seems to consider terminating the pregnancy. “I’m having the baby, and that’s that,” she declares, but that does not keep her from resenting its arrival. She finds two means of expressing her feelings about the situation. First, she gives creative titles to the semimagical pies she creates for the diner where she works, such as I-Don’t-Want-a-Baby Pie, Bad Baby Pie, and Baby-Screaming-in-the-Middle-of-the-Night-and-Ruining-My-Life Pie. She also writes letters to the baby in a notebook given to her by her fellow waitresses. In a typical entry, Jenna writes, “I’m not sure the world is such a fine place to be bringing you. Many of the people I’ve met are not worth meeting. Many of the things that happen are not worth living through.” At one point Jenna considers selling the baby after it arrives, confessing, “I feel nothing like affection” for the child. She also expresses what I can only imagine is a familiar sentiment for many expectant mothers at certain points in those nine months: “It’s an alien and a parasite. It makes me tired and weak. It complicates my life. I resent it. I have no idea how to take care of it. I’m an anti-mother.”
The second film, released only a week later, boasts the naughty title, Knocked Up . Katherine Heigl, star of the popular television series “Grey’s Anatomy,” shines as Alison Scott, an ambitious assistant producer on an entertainment-news show. Just as she is promoted to on-screen host, she finds out that she is pregnant as a result of a drunken one-night stand with Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), a schlubby slacker she barely knows. Even though she weeps when the pregnancy is confirmed in the doctor’s office and her mother advises her to have an abortion, Alison decides to keep the baby, and Ben promises to “be on board” throughout the pregnancy. From what the viewers can see of his crude and irresponsible lifestyle, however, his offer of support hardly seems reassuring.
The third film, Juno , opened, fittingly enough, on Christmas Day and has received the most attention from audiences and critics, earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture of the Year and Best Actress and winning the award for Best Original Screenplay. The film’s protagonist is a high school student named Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), who, inspired probably more by curiosity than by passion, talks her friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), into having sex with her. Once again, a child is conceived from a single sexual encounter. When she finds out, she asks Bleeker, in her irreverent way, if it is O.K. with him if she “nips it in the bud.”
Her visit to a women’s center, however, manages to spoof both the pro-choice and pro-life camps. One of Juno’s classmates, who is protesting outside the clinic, shouts to Juno that a fetus has a beating heart, can feel pain and has fingernails (an especially cogent argument for Juno’s stepmother, who works in a nail salon). Inside the clinic, Juno encounters a freaky goth receptionist, who could not be more casual or unconcerned about Juno’s situation; she gives Juno the standard form to fill out while nonchalantly offering her some flavored condoms. Immediately turned off by the atmosphere, the personnel and the other clients, Juno rushes out of the clinic. But she confesses to her parents: “I’m not ready to be a mom. I don’t know what kind of girl I am.” She decides to have the baby and give it to a responsible young couple who cannot have children of their own.
All three films are noteworthy for their frank and nonjudgmental portrayals of the expectant mothers and their misbehavior. Alison’s drunken state and passion-driven impatience lead to her one-night stand. Juno, in her experimentation, seems not to consider that even one sexual encounter can result in conception. Jenna the waitress has a torrid affair with her gynecologist. The women are hardly innocents, just unlucky statistics in Mother Nature’s determination to propagate the species. The forces of nature, in fact, are well represented in all three films by the frequent use of sonogram images, morning sickness, hormonal tantrums and tears and, in each case, a painful delivery. Yet the women are not seen as victims of either their male partners or Mother Nature. They assume responsibility for their maternal situations, and as each child is born, the mother shows that she has grown and resolved certain issues in her life, each in her own way.
The young male characters in all three films are not admirable. Jenna’s husband is an infantile bully who controls his wife’s every movement and her finances, demands that she frequently declare her love and meet his every need (sexual and otherwise) and forbids her from engaging in any independent activity, like entering a regional baking competition with a $30,000 prize. Juno’s boyfriend, Bleeker, errs in the opposite direction. Although he is charmingly sweet-natured, cooperative and sensitive to Juno’s problems, his passive and casual approach to life (the child in Juno’s womb is, after all, as much his as hers) offers little for Juno to lean on during her pregnancy. Ben Stone is also nowhere near assuming the duties of fatherhood, since he and his buddies are busy extending their adolescence by getting stoned day and night and competing for the gross-out prize with insults, explicit sexual humor and other overgrown-frat-boy pranks.
Mark (Jason Bateman), the husband of the couple whom Juno has chosen to adopt her baby, eventually reveals that he is planning to leave his wife; the disclosure spoils Juno’s dream of giving her child to a “perfect couple.” Jenna’s gynecologist-lover proposes that she run away with him, while he deserts his own wife in the process. In general, the men in these women’s lives offer portraits of immaturity, suggesting that it is precisely the maternal quality of each woman that they find attractive. It gradually becomes obvious, for example, that Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), the “perfect wife” that Juno hopes will raise her baby, wanted a child so much that she married one.
The older male characters fare better. Juno’s father (J. K. Simmons) is totally supportive, even accompanying Juno when she goes to interview the couple she hopes will adopt her baby; he offers loving and wise advice throughout the film. Jenna also receives bits of wisdom and other crucial assistance from Old Joe (Andy Griffith), the diner’s irascible owner. Ben’s father (Harold Ramis) convinces him to take responsibility for his life, inspiring him to get a real job, move out of the house he shares with his slacker buddies and start reading the books for expectant parents that Alison gave him. Are these films suggesting to women that, in their search for solid, dependable and unselfish love, no man measures up to Daddy?
Despite some similarities, each film offers a distinct mood and viewpoint. “Waitress” presents itself almost as a fairy tale. Its opening shots are close-ups of several of Jenna’s pies in the making while a gentle melody plays in the background. The scenes of Jenna making the pies are flooded in a golden hue, offering a warm background to the delicate natural beauty of Keri Russell in her blue-and-white waitress uniform. Her pies, which her lover describes at one point as “unearthly, sensual,” have names like Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, Naughty Pumpkin Pie and Falling-in-Love Chocolate Cream Pie; these touches of whimsy not only relieve the story’s tension, but also add an element of magic realism reminiscent of the food-related moments in the 1993 adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. “Waitress” ends with Jenna and her toddler Lulu (played by the late director-writer-composer Adrienne Shelly’s own daughter), waving goodbye to the audience and skipping off together into the sunset.
“Juno” is almost as fanciful in its optimism. The teenage mother’s own emotional reserve, sarcasm and flippancy (at one point she mentions that the Chinese offer their babies for adoption “like iPods”) seem to protect her from the panic and fear that a young mother might understandably experience. Her parents, her boyfriend, her best girlfriend and even her schoolmates are understanding and supportive beyond all normal expectations. At only one point in the film does Juno break down in tears, yet even then she manages to think her way through to a sensible decision about the fate of her baby. Her tough, brainy, matter-of-fact attitude, though it strains credibility, suggests that the women of the Millennial Generation may be freeing themselves from the shame and confusion that used to surround teenage pregnancy and acknowledging that with suitable community support, even an unplanned baby can be welcomed as a blessing rather than a disaster.
“Knocked Up” shares a proclivity for unusually frank and crude dialogue, explicit sexual references and activity and immature male protagonists with other works by the writer/producer/director Judd Apatow, including the 2005 hit “The 40-Year Old Virgin”; two recent Will Ferrell vehicles, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Talladega Nights”; and last summer’s release, “Superbad.” “Knocked Up” stays true to Apatow’s lucrative formula, especially in its first 20 minutes of mindless and vulgar conversation between Ben and his buddies, as well as in many other moments in the film involving crude language and behavior. But in this film, as in “Superbad,” the female characters, while hardly prudes themselves, manage for the most part to lead the men to more responsible behavior while remaining intelligent, sensual and beautiful women on their own terms. There is, I think, a feminist sensibility lurking in several of Apatow’s comedies, allowing the female characters to express both their sexuality and intelligence.
These three comedies, with their unsentimental approach to unplanned pregnancies, as well as to premarital and extramarital sexual activity, might offend some filmgoers. But comic drama from its earliest times has tended to feature less than admirable and even offensive behavior, prompting Aristotle’s disapproval of the “ignoble” characters in the Aristophanic satires of his day. Nonetheless, as Northrop Frye has observed, comedies typically conclude with forgiveness of the characters’ obsessions, ignorance, cruelty, deceptions, mistakes and just plain foolishness, with the hope that such behavior will decrease and not ultimately prevail. Each of these films ends with this type of hope for these mothers and their newborns.
Meanwhile, they sing. Juno and Bleeker are last seen joining in a quiet love duet. “Knocked Up” concludes with pictures of the film’s cast and crew with their infant children, while the soundtrack plays a jaunty ballad, “That’s My Daughter in the Water.” Jenna the waitress wanders off to the accompaniment of “Baby, Don’t You Cry.” Fully and bravely aware of the depth of human folly (including their own), each of these women characters moves into a hopeful future, celebrating the new if unplanned life that she brought into this imperfect world.
Listen to a discussion of "Juno" from our February 25 podcast .