Custard or Cheesecake? — Exploring the Lorings’ Marriage in Juno
Amongst teen pregnancy, sex education, and stuff way beyond a 16-year-old’s maturity level, 2007’s Juno is also a film about relationships. During the course of Juno’s pregnancy, we dive into the different kinds of romantic relationships that surround her life, in particular: her growing feelings for her friend Paulie Bleeker, her father Mac and stepmother Bren’s marriage, and the slowly crumbling connection between the adoptive parents of her baby, Mark and Vanessa Loring.
When I first watched Juno, I didn’t understand why the film ended with the character of Mark framed as the bad guy. I, who at the time was Juno’s age, in full throes of my first love, and who also viewed Mark as the “cool guy,” the grown-up for whom the benchmarks of adulthood don’t deter him from having a good time and retaining “childlike” pastimes such as reading comic books or longing to be a musician. From my point of view, he seemed like a man trapped in a marriage that didn’t respect his opinions or interests, where his life, as he puts it, is “stuff in boxes […] underground.”
And when the story is primarily told through Juno’s young perspective, we can’t help but witness only one side of Mark: the friendly, bantering, “hip” side that Juno relates to entirely until Mark breaks her worldview by admitting he wants to leave his wife, Vanessa.
Thirteen years after its initial release, I’d like to take a look at the Lorings’ marriage, their dynamic as a couple as seen from Juno’s point of view, and how a single scene halfway through the film perfectly encapsulates the inner workings of their relationship, clearly establishing Mark Loring as the “bad guy” of the story.
What we first see of Vanessa is, at first glance, that of a detail-oriented person, a perfectionist who may come off as uptight and micromanaging. Our first glimpse into the Loring household is a sequence of shots focusing on Vanessa’s hands, gently but surely arranging different objects such as a vase of flowers, towels with an embroidered “L” in the bathroom, and so on. From her wardrobe to the pilates equipment in the corner to her casual mention of the downstairs bathroom currently being retiled, the entire house screams “Vanessa.”
In this environment, Mark seems very much an afterthought, a kind of person who’s lifestyle varies greatly from the decor we’re shown. With Vanessa described as “very Banana Republic” in the original script, Mark instantly seems to bear the weight of his wife’s control, dressed up in such a way that seamlessly matches her own style and the life she presents to the MacGuffs.
As the film progresses, Vanessa seems to carry sole power and control in her relationship with Mark, all the while dismissing his perfectly valid interests and desires. Though she may be justified in interrupting Mark and Juno’s “jam session,” the way Mark abruptly stops playing as soon as she appears in the threshold of his room implies, perhaps, not that he’s afraid of her per se but rather like a child chastised by their parents. In much the same vein, Mark reacts by immediately jumping to action when he and Juno spend an afternoon watching The Wizard of Gore and the garage door creaks open.
On the more metaphorical side of things, we see Vanessa donning an Alice in Chains t-shirt whilst painting the nursery, a shirt implied to be Mark’s and considered disposable enough to be painted on.
Vanessa very much represents a portion of society that frowns upon “childish” pursuits like music (specifically rock and/or alternative music) and comic books, the kind of people whose ultimate argument boils down to “grow up,” as if maturity and adulthood are tainted or made invalid by having hobbies — or rather, the incorrect kind of hobbies — in place of responsibilities. While Juno can be excused due to her age, in Vanessa’s eyes, Mark is immature and a tad shameful.
In fact, it’s during the last two interactions with her husband that she makes two distinct comments meant to insult him:
“Your shirt is stupid.” A comment Diablo Cody remarks a male friend of hers considered “the worst insult in the film.”
“Aren’t you the cool guy?” sarcastically in response to Mark stating he’d found a loft, rather than a hotel, to live in after their separation.
Vanessa, in her pursuit of motherhood and of a picture-perfect suburban family, is a layered character, someone not free of her faults but rather lets them drive her desires. She unwittingly forces her husband into a kind person he simply cannot be and within such a nuanced situation as adoption or divorce, I don’t believe it fair to declare either party the good guy or bad guy. Ultimately, Vanessa is open about her wants and despite nearly losing her chance at having a baby, she genuinely cares for Juno’s wellbeing without acting coy or condescending in an attempt to keep the baby. As Jennifer Garner stated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she based her acting on someone she knew who “came across as cold or controlling but was really just trying so hard to do the right thing.”
As previously mentioned, Mark is a figure initially portrayed as trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, unsure of the responsibilities of being a parent, let alone the manner in which his personality and lifestyle have been kept in the dark in order to suit his wife’s vision of a perfect family. And while there is evidence in the film of his discontent and the pressure he’s placed under, it is doubly true that he plays his own role in the downfall of his marriage, beginning with his vilification of his wife in Juno’s eyes and culminating in a murky relationship with Juno that, ultimately, leads her to turn to Vanessa.
During their first meeting, Mark and Juno strike up an instant connection and friendship that builds throughout the film. As they spend more and more time together, he feeds her bits of information about his marriage through depreciative comments, thus placing himself as the “cool” parent versus Vanessa’s fastidious “mom type.” During their first one-on-one interaction, it’s noteworthy that when Juno asks him about his Les Paul, Mark chooses to include a loaded answer concerning Vanessa:
“Is that a Les Paul?”
“Yes, it is. Vanessa gave me a room for all of my stuff.”
Juno reacts with perhaps the same level of incredulousness as the audience: Vanessa gave Mark his own room, in his own house? While Juno herself doesn’t help the situation by making demeaning comments such as, “She’s got you on a long leash there!” or Mark being a sellout for working as a commercial composer, it’s telling that this is the first bit of information Mark offers about himself and his wife without prompt or reason.
As the film progresses, Mark becomes visibly more comfortable with Juno, perhaps finally having someone to talk with about shared interests in music and gore; yet he also uses these moments to control the narrative surrounding his marriage, painting Vanessa as the proverbial ball and chain to his otherwise carefree spirit. His constant emphasis on the kind of disapproval he lives with at Vanessa’s side is such that when Mark lets it drop he’s considering leaving her, one of Juno’s reactions is, “Is Vanessa mad at you because of me?”, revealing just how little she actually knows Vanessa.
We see that throughout the story Mark acts not as the prospective adoptive father of Juno’s baby, but more like a teenager acting out, joining Juno in her misdeeds and bashing of the grown-up world he’s a part of. He makes fun of parenting, specifically Vanessa’s behavior when it comes to naming or shopping for the baby, he brushes aside Vanessa’s comment about him not “contributing” as nothing more than a nagging, overbearing judgment and, in contrast to the Mark who would snap to attention guiltily each time his wife appeared in an untimely manner, he rushes down to meet Juno when she arrives at his house and remarks that they are “safe,” as Vanessa isn’t home.
According to the audio commentary provided by director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, Mark’s outfits throughout the film change according to where he is, mentally, in his marriage. His clothes at the beginning of the film — bright cerulean sweater layered over a button-up shirt — seem to be picked out by Vanessa, who wears a similar combination. As the story progresses, Mark begins to dress in a more comfortable manner, opting for flannels and jeans before completely turning the page with a Soundgarden t-shirt layered over a long-sleeved shirt and a color scheme that complements Juno’s wardrobe.
It can be said that Mark undergoes a negative character development, his underlying resentment towards Vanessa tainting his friendship with Juno and his overall attitude towards parenthood. In a deleted scene called “Mark’s loft,” Juno narrates how Mark has been doing after the divorce and describes a brief moment she ran into him in a store after the events of the film. Watching Mark hit on a much younger girl, Juno states that he “looks exactly the same,” her tone disapproving as Mark desperately clings to his youth in the most boorish of manners.
Once again, it can be difficult to judge either character as good or bad when trapped in marital conflicts concerning parenthood, unfulfilled desires, etc. Much like Vanessa, Mark acts out in reasonable ways as he watches his life unfold without his want or consent; yet unlike Vanessa, he makes the worst of the situation by seemingly expecting both Vanessa and Juno to cater to his needs, growing desperate as the control of the narrative slips from his hands the moment he announces his divorce and Juno and Vanessa, as a united front, are able to grasp the kind of person Mark is.
As this is primarily Juno MacGuff’s story, the audience rarely strays from her point of view, following her from the moment she learns she’s pregnant up to her delivery and subsequent relationship with Bleeker. There are segments, however, when the story cuts over to other characters and their storylines without intrusion from Juno, such as: Bleeker, pining in his room with her underwear in hand, or Mac and Bren’s discussion over Juno’s senseless sex life after she breaks the news of her pregnancy to them.
These brief windows into different characters’ standpoints feel in tune with the story, necessary to portray a complete picture of the situation without branching too far from the main plotline, occurring very briefly in moments where the relevance lies in these characters’ knowledge over Juno’s subjective perspective.
And it’s one of these divergences that, I believe, sheds vital light on Mark and Vanessa’s relationship, truly seeing the essence of their marriage without witnesses or care.
Halfway through the film, the point of view shifts over to Mark and Vanessa’s home, where she brings him into the incomplete nursery to ask his opinion between two swatches of yellow paint. Mark states, “They’re yellow.”
She mentions picking a yellow hue to keep it gender-neutral, to which he patronizingly replies, “Why does everybody think that yellow is gender-neutral? I don’t know any guy with a yellow bedroom.”
Vanessa mentions preferring the custard hue. Mark suggests waiting a few more months to paint the room. “It’s not like the baby’s gonna come in here demanding dessert-colored walls.”
Vanessa smiles, somewhat frustrated, and calmly explains that What to Expect says that preparing the baby’s room, a process called “nesting”, is important for the woman, “especially if you’re adopting.”
Mark quips back with, “What, you’re gonna build a crib out of sticks and spit?” Vanessa seems to laugh but she sighs, looking somewhat disappointed. Throughout this scene she barely makes eye contact with him, glancing down while speaking. As soon as she suggests reading the daddy chapters of the book to help him along, he immediately rejects the idea, looking away from her, before firmly stating that he thinks it’s too early to paint.
Vanessa, also not looking at him, says almost in a whisper, “I disagree.”
The dynamic in play during this scene reveals much about Mark’s character and the active role he plays within the relationship. Without outside interference, Mark is dismissive, passive-aggressive, gazing disinterestedly at the colors on the wall and ignoring most of Vanessa’s comments while making quips of his own.
Vanessa, usually soft-spoken but more so during this exchange, doesn’t challenge his opinions or ignore them, disagreeing with him tentatively until the very end. In a deleted scene called “Mark plays guitar” that serves as an intro to the scene above, Vanessa approaches Mark’s room as he’s playing guitar. Uncharacteristically from what we’ve been told through Mark, Vanessa stops at the threshold, hesitant to interrupt him, before stating she’s nearly done with the nursery. Mark takes a look at her and said, in a sarcastic tone:
“Wow. Nice shirt. [He nods to Vanessa’s Alice in Chains t-shirt] I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with the place.”
A bitter expression without care for the nursery or the very event they’re preparing for, Vanessa’s kind smile drops, taking a moment to compose herself before asking if he wants to help pick the colors.
Both in the deleted scene and within the film, we see Mark completely closing himself off to Vanessa during a moment in which they should both be preparing for a new arrival in their family unit. He immerses himself in his interests, letting Vanessa take care of the preparations whilst dropping criticism from the sidelines. At this moment, more than motherhood, Vanessa seems to be the only person who cares for the baby itself.
When the tension between these two characters reaches a climax during the third act of the film, I wonder how Mark ever reached that point without expressing to his wife that he didn’t want to be a father.
Communication is key in any marriage (or any relationship) yet Mark seems content letting all his frustration and anger against Vanessa fester, placing all the blame on her without ever seeming to meet her halfway with his feelings about parenthood, despite having gone through the process before. In another deleted scene called “Carry chair to Bleeks, sit in car waiting,” we’re shown a very brief moment in which Vanessa watches tearfully from the window as Mark waves off a young, pregnant couple.
This may be the “cold feet” incident they describe to Juno later on in the film; unfortunately, it only serves to emphasize Mark’s lack of communication within his marriage. While each couple has their reasons for adopting, certain comments from Vanessa make it clear she can’t have children; it isn’t hard to imagine that after trying and failing to conceive, the Lorings took the route of adoption and have had at least one fall through. So why is it until Juno comes into the picture that Mark finally chooses to break his silence?
Why didn’t this conversation come up before?
Back in the audio commentary of the film, Reitman and Cody comment that while their feelings for each other remain overall platonic, Juno is in love with the idea of being an adult while Mark is in love with the idea of being young. And it isn’t until he reveals he’s leaving Vanessa that their worldviews clash and these feelings projected onto each other are unable to find any solid basis or hold, and they crumble.
And perhaps this is the crux of the issue between one of the main relationships shown in the film; while neither is the bad guy and it’s possible for two people who fell in love with each other to grow apart, Mark’s attitude in his partnership with Vanessa tears their marriage apart as he forces his expectations onto everyone else while Vanessa works on her own expectations internally, ultimately becoming the one choice Juno has for her baby’s family.