Getting to know the in-laws has become a staple among today’s situational comedies. The mega-hit “Meet the Parents” franchise is the pinnacle of the genre’s new wave, and last spring “Monster-In-Law” and “Guess Who” proved to be modest hits. Yet for all those broad strokes, Phil Morrison’s quirky indie “Junebug” takes a totally different approach. While it’s laced with a sly wit, it also brings much more depth to its characters than your typical studio comedy.
After meeting at a benefit, Chicago-based art dealer Madeline (Embeth Davidtz, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and George (Alessandro Nivola, “Jurassic Park III”) quickly marry. Six months later, they travel to North Carolina where Madeline seeks to recruit an eccentric local artist; coincidentally, George’s family lives near the painter, so they decide to visit them as well.
Not everybody reacts to Madeline in a similar way. George’s mom (Celia Watson, “The Village”) and brother (Benjamin McKenzie, TV’s “The O.C.”) show distance; his aloof father (Scott Wilson, “”The Last Samurai”) is somewhat ambivalent and his brother’s pregnant wife (Amy Adams, “Catch Me If You Can”) acts star struck to the point of obsession.
The movie could have easily used cliched prototypes for its characters based on their geographical backgrounds, instead it makes them real people with their own flaws and needs. Bucking the recent trend, George’s family does not consist of poor, uneducated hicks, and Madeline has her own agenda. Each character is seeking some form of emotional satisfaction, even if it is through hopes of the future through loved ones.
Like everyday life, the story is content to focus on the smaller moments that make up people’s worlds. Madeline has an important choice to make that she barely considers, and Johnny – in what is probably the film’s most powerful scene – shows his true love for his wife by becoming convulsively incensed over a VCR. It’s moments like these that endow “Junebug” with a deeper undercurrent of symbolism, one that is not afraid to be heavy on subtlety and subtext.
Morrison clearly understands the intricacies of Angus MacLachlan’s script and captures small-town life through dutiful exterior shots of places and people. His style here evokes famed director Robert Altman, who is best known for tight character dramas and his knack for realism and all its random occurrences.
The film also assembles one of the finest ensemble casts in years. In particular, McKenzie proves he can do a lot more than shoot brooding looks in California high society: He gives a remarkable performance that shows real range as a frustrated and intense young husband. But it’s Adams, with her wide eyes and childlike naivete, who really steals the show; her turn radiates with a generous sweetness and unexpected insight that’s at the heart of the movie.
Morrison has skillfully crafted a richly rewarding and even poetic film about the endless complexities of relationships and family.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars