13 August 2005 | noralee
A Prodigal Son Has More Baggage At Home Than He Brings With Him
"Junebug" is a ruefully sweet, clear-eyed take on the going home genre that usually takes the form of prodigal child returning due to a funeral or serious illness with guilt hanging in the air until it ignites an explosion.
Instead, debut writer Angus MacLachlan has brought "George" home to North Carolina as a coincidence of his new wife's job and life has gone on without him and will continue when he's gone again.
Debut director Phil Morrison does a lovely job of visually establishing how each person in the family has staked out their physical space and roles within the family, even as sounds and light uncomfortably carry through the walls and beyond the rooms. I haven't seen every inch of a normal house used as a movie setting so intensively since "The Brothers McMullen," complete with blowing up an air mattress in the nursery.
Those scenes contrast with how different the family members are outside that house, such as the sullen, angry brother (Benjamin McKenzie) perking up comfortably with his fellow warehouse workers and "George" easily fitting back into a church service.
While the usual is to have the spouse's estranged family be colorfully ethnic or straight-laced WASP as a comic contrast, a la the "Meet the Fockers" mode, here they are complicated rural folk and are not condescended to, even as no good deed goes unpunished. Both sides receive their share of mockery and sympathy from the story; everyone's hypocrisy and humanity are revealed and at least two scenes bring tears to the eyes, one touching and the other sad.
While everyone is speaking English, the miscommunications abound, though it is a bit heavy-handed to have the English-bred wife coach the brother on "Huckleberry Finn," let alone her bizarre negotiations with a probably crazy local artist. Each either takes a comment too literally or misinterprets passive aggressive silences; what people don't say comes to be more important than what they do say, as even Amy Adams' wonderfully chatty character is warm-heartedly mature and caring.
The big, annoying weakness of the film, and keeps it from being a satisfying film, is the vague character of the prodigal son. While it seems that his older, folk art collecting wife probably lusted after him at first sight because he was the first cute straight guy who walked into her gallery (and I assume there is some significance that he buys the painting that doesn't make him happy), their quickie marriage seem to be based only on newlywed randiness, as everything seems to turn them on. Taking after his father busy woodworking away in the basement, he pretty much sloths out in the house or car, so it is confusing hypocrisy when he suddenly steps up to the plate in an emergency, accuses his wife of not putting family first and then bails on the follow up.
Alessandro Nivola well portrays a literal golden boy who is, of course, his mother's heart's delight and in her eyes can do no wrong (even he acknowledges that his new wife is bound to discover his faults), though people who have different positions in their families may interpret the sibling behaviors in different ways. But the film only shows us how people react to him and very little about him other than his casual sense of entitlement, though the mostly silent guy to guy communication is realistic.
Other than one superbly beautiful hymn sung by Nivola (he also sang well as rock star in "Laurel Canyon"), the soundtrack does not take the T. Bone Burnett traditional songs approach, but instead has a score by Hoboken, NJ's own Yo La Tengo that doesn't take sides between the country or the big city.