JUNEBUG

R
Reviews

Not since Joe Pesci and an Oscar-winning Marisa Tomei shook their Brooklyn roots and invaded dysfunctional Dixie 13 years ago in My Cousin Vinny has there been a more charming class-clash comedy-drama than Junebug. Actually, because the film's debuting architects (director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan) are at heart and in fact good ol' Southern boys, the tone of the picture is more pastel, less broad-stroked and slanted more sympathetically toward the South (even if seen through alien Yankee eyes).

The outsider in this instance is Madeleine, a sophisticated Chicago art dealer who speaks with a clipped British accent and, being a diplomat's daughter, was born in Japan. ("You were not!" exclaims one of her newly acquired Dixie in-laws, unable to fathom such a phenomenon.) A trek to rural North Carolina, given her background, is like a speedy elevator descent, enough to give a girl "the bends" or nosebleeds, but business and pleasure force the trip. She is trying to woo a primitive backwoods artist of the Grandma Moses school on the one hand, and on the other, she is glad-handing her groom's parents, brother and sister-in-law. The latter, played excellently by Amy Adams, is the only truly accepting relative in the whole litter, but then she wasn't born into the family.

Adams is top-billed by virtue of the alphabetical listing, but her role is definitively secondary (though welcome and discernibly different from the others). And she has done much with the little allotted her, winning the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Acting Prize. (The film's title is the name of the baby she is expecting.)

Despite the jarring speech pattern, Embeth Davidtz does not let condescension seep into her portrayal of the art dealer, but rather addresses the Southern inhospitalities heaped on her with a compassionate understanding of human values-a tough trick to pull off, but pull it off she does, thanks to the noted, sensitive assistance of Morrison and MacLachlan.

Alessandro Nivola as her new husband George, a product of both worlds, has his own tightrope to walk, and he manages it nicely. Ben McKenzie ("The O.C.") plays his younger brother in an assortment of sullen shades-toward every character in the film-and he becomes a one-note irritant.

The seniors in the film lend themselves well to the muted texture of this mood piece. Scott Wilson and Celia Watson score in their quiet ways as George's parents, she playing it in a harsher key than is usual for her and he playing passively approving but unable to change the family's set emotional machinery. (Like Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, Wilson has taken on the physical facsimile of the elderly Paul Newman.) Frank Hoyt Taylor is an authentic hoot as the backwoods painter in the emperor's new clothes.
David Doernberg's production design, Peter Donahue's photography, Yo La Tengo's music, Danielle Kays' costumes-all labor lovingly to keep Junebug real and low-key.
-Harry Haun