September 27, 2005 -- I love movies or plays about the south, examples are, “Cookie's Fortune,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” etc. The king of this kind of drama was Tennessee Williams. Often these dramas involve some hidden secret from the past which haunts a southern family. “Junebug” is a lesser kind of southern drama. Like most, it is filled with colorful characters and seething resentments boiling to the surface. The difference is, this film neglects the back story needed to make sense of these old resentments. This features evangelical Christianity front and center in a semi-functional middle class North Carolina family. Although there are some church and prayer scenes in the film. Religion seems to have no effect at all on people's behavior. I sure wished I had enjoyed this film as much as I do most films about the south, but I found most of the movie's characters to be either wearisome or irritating.
The southern family in question features a domineering mother, Peg (Celia Weston), a saintly father, Eugene (Scott Wilson of “The Last Samurai”), a sullen son, Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie of “The O.C.” TV show) and Johnny's good-hearted, upbeat motor-mouthed wife Ashley (Amy Adams of “Serving Sara”). Add to this mix Johnny's brother, George (Alessandro Nivola) and George's cosmopolitan wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz of “The Emperor's Club”). George has not been home in three years. He's been living in Chicago. Madeleine has never met the family. Johnny takes George's visit as a personal affront, coming at the time of the impending birth of his first child. Johnny resents his brother's success and what little he says is heavily laced with bitterness. He resents being tied down as a father and feels trapped by what he sees is a bleak future. Ashley, on the other hand, seems to like everyone and she instantly bonds with Madeleine.
Although Madeleine is clearly out of her element, she does her best to make friends with all the family members, even glum Johnny. Madeleine is clearly shocked to discover a whole new side of her husband in this family and church environment. When George sings a hymn solo at a church gathering it is clear from her reaction that this is all new to her. Another part of the story concerns Madeleine's real purpose in coming to this part of the country. She is here to try to persuade an eccentric artist, David Wark (Frank Hoyt Taylor of “Ghosts of Mississippi”) to sign with her gallery. She spends all of her time trying to win over Wark and George's family.
The strong point of the film is the acting. The leads are all excellent. My favorite character was George's father, Eugene, a man whose quiet wisdom is constantly overlooked. Amy Adams excels in the very showy role of the bubbly Ashley, but Embeth Davidtz is equally good as Madeleine. The screenplay, by Angus MacLachlan, never takes sides in this battle between blue urban and red rural America. It exposes the strengths and weaknesses of each side in the culture wars. The cinematography, by Peter Donahue, is curiously flat. The film looks like it was shot on video. The scenery looks like it could have been shot anywhere. There is no sense of place. At odd times nondescript bits of film seem to have been picked up off the cutting room floor and put back into the print to fill it out.
The drama is also curiously flat. The tensions in the film stay just below the surface, for the most part, and remain mostly unexplored. We finally see below the surface of Ashley in one dramatic scene with Madeleine, when she finally says what is bothering her about her marriage to Johnny. On the other hand, Johnny remains frustratingly vague about what makes him so angry. This is the sort of film that doesn't feel the need to spell things out. The viewer has to make up his own mind about these characters. Some viewers like that approach, others don't. I personally would have been more receptive to the effort of deciphering these obtuse characters if they had been interesting, or at least engaging. I found most of the characters, with the exception of Eugene and Madeleine, to be either uninteresting or annoying. These are not people I wanted to spend time with. This film rates a C.
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