Phil Morrison’s irritating Junebug is a film about mundane caricatures—er, characters—doing mundane things in mundane ways. There’s not a whit of spunk throughout most of the picture. Set in North Carolina, Junebug pits Blue State purity (Madeleine) vs. Red State bottom-feeding (the whole hillbilly family), with the two sides locking horns throughout. Who emerges victorious? Well, theoretically—thanks to a little deus-ex-machina and a whole lot of nonsense—everyone learns their lessons by the end, and goes on the path to their destinies all the wiser. The clichés read like a laundry list of Southern dirty undies:
• The bitter yokel Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie)—complete with mustache—who spits venom at everyone who tries to help him become something stings his soul…yet somewhere, deep down, there’s a bit of good buried…
• Johnny’s brother George (Alessandro Nivola), the angelic gem from a family of misfits, quiet yet focused on what’s right.
• George’s wife, Madeleine from the North, (Embeth Davidtz) who has a heart-of-gold, yet her every attempt at injecting warmth into the dysfunctional family is coldly rebuffed. Don’t fret, though, she has a shameful action of her own up her sleeve.
• The obnoxious mother Peg (Celia Weston), full of resentment towards Madeleine for what she perceives as a superiority complex, only to soften at the end when she realizes it’s what Georgey-poo wants.
• …the kind-but-weak-willed father
• …the quirky artist…
Only Johnny’s wife Ashley (a superb Amy Adams) shows any richness of character—her breakdown in the hospital after her highly-anticipated baby dies during childbirth is completely believable. Stuck in a loveless marriage and hopeless household, she had viewed the child as an escape from the misery-soaked cloud of gloom that enshrouds her, a misery that she tries to forget by relentlessly smiling and asking a million and one questions. With her salvation never arriving, she’s forced into the realization that all the jokes in the world won’t get her out of hell on earth. Much like Rose in Steven Soderbergh’s recent Bubble, Ashley feels trapped, and the audience empathizes intensely with her longing for a better life.
The aforementioned moment is one of the few emotionally honest sequences in all of Junebug, though; almost everything else is contrived and heavy-handed. For instance, Madeleine is constantly depicted in an angelic light: trying to help Johnny get that finally-within-reach GED, keeping Ashley’s spirits up, etc. Generosity for everyone! But when Ashley’s about to give birth, Madeleine excuses herself from the proceedings, choosing instead to make a last-ditch effort to secure the work of an artist she admires (she succeeds). While this might make sense in a different movie with different people, it’s completely inconsistent with Morrison’s depiction of Madeleine. Although she is portrayed as deeply committed to her art gallery, the script never prepares us for Madeleine’s betrayal, and the victory of careerism over affection. Furthermore, her relationship with George isn’t sufficiently developed: they were married one week after meeting, but their connection is depicted only in scenes of sexual intimacy: what brought them together other than that is never explored, nor does their marriage have any impact on the other relationships in the film. Simplistic characterizations such as these doom Junebug entirely.
You’ll have to pardon my condescending tone, but Junebug annoyed me while in the theater, and annoys me even more as I write about it. Its saving graces are a) the sharp painting of the racist-and-entirely-prejudiced loner artist—his art features black men with enormous cocks, representing the age-old Southern fear of black male sexuality—and b) the dialogue, surprisingly amusing at times but unable to overcome the formulaic approach that pervades the rest of the script. Overall, this gets my Station Agent award of 2005 for most undeservingly praised flick, completely lacking in plausibility or consistency in tone. Skip it, unless you’re a voyeur craving a close-up view of directorial masturbation.