That was my reaction upon meeting Mark Loring, played by Jason Bateman, in the Oscar-nominated Juno.
True to Bateman’s resume, the character he plays in the Jason Reitman comedy is in a state of arrested development.
In the scene in which Mark meets the birth mother of the unborn child he and his wife are making moves to adopt, a smirk is permanently on his face. His wife is serious and in love with the idea of being “a mommy.” He, on the other hand, when asked if he looks forward to being a father, replies — now with a more awkward smirk — “Hmm. Betcha. Yeah.” He goes on to ramble about how every man wants to be a father and coach the soccer team and help make one of those volcanoes for the school science fair. “Yeah.”
Later, he becomes distracted playing guitar with Juno, the pregnant teenager interested in giving her baby for adoption whom they’re interviewing. The interest of the teenage girl is piqued by Mark’s music room, about which he announces, “Vanessa gave me my own room for my stuff.” It’s as if he moved out of his parents’ place to move in with a wife and a life he’s not that into.
You get the hint early on, in other words, that Vanessa Loring — played by Jennifer Garner — is operating on a different maturity level than her husband.
That Mark’s not into the adult life he physically resides in becomes more obvious by the scene. Mark gets distracted when Juno eyes his guitar and so the two don’t return to the lawyer they are supposed to be talking to, instead enjoying an impromptu jam session — until the one responsible adult in the house (Vanessa, his wife) comes to get them, like the mother she wants to be. He watches gore films and makes CDs for his new teenage friend after she shows up to show off an ultrasound one afternoon. (I don’t want to grow up. Come, be a kid with me.) He dances with Juno alone in his house and asks her, “Do you feel like there’s something between us?” moments before he announces to her that he’s decided to leave his wife. When young Juno looks devastated that the happily married couple she had hoped to leave her baby with wasn’t so happy and wouldn’t be married for much longer, Mark says, with a look that betrays his stunted-adolescent maturity: “How do you think of me? Why are you over here?”
Mark Loring reminded me immediately of Leonard Sax. His book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, reiterates some of what Christina Hoff Sommers wrote about in her War Against Boys, and what many of us can see around us: While there are no interest groups worrying about how often they raise their hands or get called on in class, something bad is happening to our boys. Sax — a psychiatrist — writes: “What’s troubling about so many of the boys I see in my practice, or the boys I hear about from parents and teachers, is that they don’t have much passion for any real-world activity.” They’re playing video games that “seldom connect with the real world”; they are like Mark Loring, who sits at home and watches The Wizard of Gore while bemoaning the fact that he’s sold out and no longer plays in a band in bars. (He composes music for commercials to pay for kitchen remodeling while he really wants to be the next Kurt Cobain, as Vanessa complains when he announces he no longer wants to be married.)
Sax calls it “this weird new virus of apathy.” Not all young men have it, but enough that it shows in the stats. Colleges have gone from majority male to majority female in the last 50 years. And while most young women who enroll will graduate, most of their male counterparts won’t. Mark Loring has gone through the motions, got the job, got the bride. But he’s not satisfied and doesn’t know what to do in his beautiful home, with a successful wife who is happy with the life she’s made for herself (and, she hopes, for them both).
Mark Loring reminds me of a letter in Sax’s book from a woman named Sarah. She says her husband is stuck on Xbox, and while she loves him and so will tolerate a certain amount of his lack of motivation to grow up, she is “constantly haunted” by something he said: “He said that I might need to lower my expectations in life because he didn’t know whether he could provide them for me. What I find funny now is that I’m the real provider. I don’t feel like I’m part of a team. It’s wearing on me.” I hope that Sarah and her husband wound up better off than the Lorings.
Sax suggests that the answer may be found in John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The concept of “giving all you have in the service of others” as a guiding principle of “manliness” isn’t one overflowing in American pop culture and it sure as heck isn’t one Mark Loring knows. When this underdeveloped character leaves us in Juno, you get the feeling he’ll be laying down pretty soon, but certainly not in self-sacrifice. The question is more of whether he will remember the name of the woman with whom he lays the next morning.
Most of the commentary about Juno has been about the teenage girl who gets pregnant and decides not to have an abortion (the movie is the latest in a slew of recent movies with similar themes): Hey, there’s a kid there, and letting the kid be born is not the end of your world. But there’s a message beyond that in this movie. And that few have noticed it — including, it would seem, the director — might itself be a disturbing cultural indicator.
In her War Against Boys, Sommers wrote that “we are turning against boys and forgetting a simple truth: that the energy, competitiveness, and corporal daring of normal, decent males is responsible for much of what is right in the world.” She saw enough cause for alarm back in 2000: Boys were “inhabit[ing] a milieu of disapproval” and living “under a cloud of censure, in a permanent state of culpability. . . . routinely regarded as protosexists, potential harassers, and perpetuators of gender inequity.”
Mark Loring was likely already on the road to being lost in 2000. Juno shows what happens when we let down our boys: They embrace the disapproval; they underachieve; and — if they bother to commit — they let down those to whom they’re responsible.
When he announces to his wife that he’s leaving, Vanessa asks Mark if he’s found an apartment. “It’s not an apartment, it’s a loft,” Mark replies. “Well, aren’t you the cool one?” One fears to discover how many twenty- and thirty- and forty-something males (Child-Men, as Kay Hymowitz would call them) have seen Juno with their girlfriends — or heaven forbid, wives — and thought to themselves, “yeah, he is.”