The Crop: Jennifer’s Body
The Production Company: Fox Atomic
The Director: Karyn Kusama
The Writer: Diablo Cody
The Actors: Megan Fox
The Premise: A beautiful and popular teenage girl gets transformed into a flesh eating demon who feasts on the bodies of teenage boys, and only her adoring best friend can stop her.
The Context: About four months ago, I saw a picture on Jeffrey Wells’s Hollywood Elsewhere of Diablo Cody throwing up the trite "sign of the devil", and flew into a blind rage. That’s a bit of an overstatement. I really just rolled my eyes, considered leaving a snide remark in the comments section, thought better of it, and moved on to the next item. What was the use of getting worked up? Anyone who flashes the sign of the devil outside the presence of Ronnie James Dio is probably not someone I’m ever going to take seriously. And while the positive notices were beginning to trickle out of Telluride for the little film she’d written called Juno, I decided, based on one irritating photograph, that this had everything to do with Jason Reitman and his impressive cast elevating mediocre-at-best material.
Now that Juno rests at number six on my 2007 top ten list, there’s but one explanation: Ronnie James Dio took that picture.
Whereas Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite slathered on the quirk to mask their lack of invention, Juno‘s aggressively stylized dialogue seems entirely of its characters. They’re not types or cogs in the narrative; they’re just the inhabitants of a heightened universe in which it’s perfectly normal for people to bond over the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. It’s a place where we’d all like to live, I think. And once we adjust to Cody’s peculiar patois (truth be told, it took me a few minutes), it all feels as genuine as any of the off-center worlds created by the Coens or Wes Anderson.
The difference, though, is that Cody’s writing is far more accessible – i.e. if the film’s $56 million and counting domestic box office take is any indication. Perhaps this is a function of Cody seeming of the moment rather than a reaction to the staid status quo, as the Coens and Anderson so clearly were (though they have, respectively, evolved and regressed over time). Having honed her voice publicly via a series of blogs (most notably "Pussy Ranch") and a memoir (Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper), Cody was able to, in a way, test market her sensibility – or, rather, the presentation of it. This isn’t to suggest that she calibrated her voice to appeal to the mainstream; it’s just that she was able to find her audience on her own terms. The Coens and Anderson were always at the mercy of marketers who generally did not understand their work.
Unsurprisingly, as Cody has made the press rounds and submitted to the awards season gauntlet of cocktail parties and post-film Q&As, resentment has begun to bubble up. And then there’s the Entertainment Weekly column, which struck some as self-promotion run amok (especially since she’s currently considered the frontrunner for Best Original Screenplay). But while Cody does not shrink from the spotlight, I’ve yet to detect anything disingenuous about her public persona. However, in the interest of full disclosure, now would probably be a good time to mention that I conversed with Ms. Cody in a non-press situation over margaritas (at El Coyote prior to Edgar Wright’s New Beverly double bill of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Head), and discovered that she’s just another geek like you or me. Her voice is definitely not a put-on; she more than held her own in a discussion that veered from Russ Meyer to Brian Wilson to the glorious career of Renny Harlin. You can’t fake that shit.
The only uncomfortable moment of the evening was when Devin arrived bearing a couple of scripts for a future Crop Report: Jennifer’s Body and Time and a Half, both by Diablo Cody. As I was seated next to the author, who might not have appreciated two of her unproduced screenplays being passed around in public, Devin wisely chose to withhold them until after the screenings.
But now I was biased. I liked this Diablo Cody. And I’d long forgotten about that whole sign of the devil nonsense.
The Script: Interestingly, it’s a Satan-worshipping emo band that fucks everything up in Jennifer’s Body, a very Whedon-esque horror/comedy that kinda feels like a franchise starter.
Even though we know from the outset that our protagonist, Anita "Needy" Lesnicki survives her climactic confrontation with her done-turned-Succubus best friend, Jennifer Check, I wasn’t thinking Buffy until the final act. Well, not entirely. The fact that the institutionalized Needy is a "kicker" – i.e. she’s prone to firing off roundhouse kicks if provoked – bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain vampire slayer. But the primary influence on Cody’s writing this time out is, unmistakably, Daniel Waters and Heathers: this is straight-up adolescent satire that skewers, among other things, male sexual powerlessness and the bogus solemnity of small-town tragedy.
The screenplay starts with Needy acknowledging via voiceover that, yes, she murdered her best friend, and that her only regret is that she "didn’t do it sooner". After indulging in some familiar asylum humor, Cody plunges us right into what would likely be the final scene if this were a traditional horror flick: Needy’s killing of Jennifer. Their final battle takes place in Jennifer’s bedroom, where the once-gorgeous teenager lies in a weakened state from a lack of feeding. That Jennifer is able to distract Needy during their struggle with a flash of her bare breasts rams home a bit too emphatically the sexual component of the girls’ relationship, but, otherwise, dispensing with this obligatory scene early indicates that Cody is after something more than another teen-themed horror movie – as if we didn’t know that already.
We finally leap back to the proper beginning of the narrative on page twelve, which is where Cody introduces us to Needy’s doomed boyfriend, Chip (not a spoiler – we know he’s a goner ‘cuz that’s what drove Needy to off Jennifer), who’s drumming one of the two songs he knows ("Land of a Thousand Dances") at a high school pep rally as the flag team, led by Jennifer, does their flag twirling thing. Needy digs Chip, but it’s her lifelong soul mate Jennifer who dominates her life. This is intriguing in that there’s absolutely no difference between pre- and post-possession Jennifer; she’s a figurative sex-starved brat in the beginning, and a literal one by the conclusion. So why does a National Merit Scholar like Needy hang with a vacuous bitch like Jennifer? "Sandbox love never dies."
In keeping with the one-sided nature of their friendship, Jennifer bullies Needy into accompanying her to a Soft Shoulder show at a local dive (Soft Shoulder being the up-and-coming emo band that sold their collective soul to the devil in exchange for stardom – but we don’t know that just yet). Though this means blowing off Chip and "Movie Night" (Orca!), Needy does it anyway. Not that this is a blow to Chip’s manhood; he’s used to finishing second to Jennifer, and also seems resigned to Needy’s unspoken sexual attraction to her best friend (which hardly speaks well to the state of his manhood, but every guy in this script is emasculated to some degree).
The Soft Shoulder show is where it all goes to shit. We quickly realize the band is up to no good when they target Jennifer for what sounds like a post-show pass-around (she’s got it bad for the lead singer). Needy figures this out, but before she can drag Jennifer away, flames engulf the venue in a repeat of the Great White tragedy. Though the girls make it out, nearly everyone else gets trapped inside. The only other survivors are, suspiciously, Soft Shoulder, who immediately invite Jennifer back to their "molester van" as if everything is everything. Despite Needy’s protestations, she agrees.
The next time we see Jennifer, she’s vomiting "a torrent of evil-looking black bile all over Needy’s house. Basically, Jennifer was the victim of a virgin sacrifice gone horribly wrong – i.e. because she wasn’t a virgin, she’s now a super-powered demon who craves the flesh of teenage boys. To Jennifer, this is totally cool.
As the community struggles to cope with the aftermath of the fire (which claimed the lives of nine students, "including Ahmet from India"), Jennifer commences her murderous rampage, starting with the grief-stricken quarterback of the football team. The only salve for these concurrent tragedies is a tribute song composed by Soft Shoulder (three percent of the proceeds will go to the families of the deceased). Meanwhile, Needy is the only person aware that Jennifer is responsible for the string of deaths, but the whole supernatural angle makes it kind of impossible for her to convince anyone, even Chip.
It’s the middle section of the screenplay – with its inept grief counseling and disastrous goth funeral – that most resembles Heathers, and it’s here that Cody’s satire is at its sharpest. But as the narrative moves into the third act, culminating with the "Turnabout Dance", the script veers into the formulaic; suddenly, we’ve got another climactic showdown between Needy and Jennifer, and we’re wondering how this turned into a random episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. And then there’s the denouement, which is verily begging for a sequel, a pilot or both. Though I won’t deny that the wrap-up is satisfying in its own right, it does feel like Cody is settling for The Lost Boys when she could’ve had something far more subversive.
Taken as a strictly commercial screenplay, Jennifer’s Body is solid work. That said, I’m especially happy that I saw Juno before I read this script; Cody’s dialogue has the tendency to sound stilted on the page. This makes me wonder if lesser actors can handle her stylized banter; it’s not every time that you’re going to get spoiled with the likes of Ellen Page, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons and so on.
Why It Should Be Good: It may not work all the way as satire, but it’s briskly paced and very, very funny. I mean, any movie with an Orca reference can’t be half-bad.
What It Might Suck: I know I said a bunch of nice shit about Karyn Kusama earlier in the week, but she’s the unknown quantity here. Jennifer’s Body falls somewhere in between character piece and commercial entertainment: she once did the former fairly well, but the latter was Aeon Flux. It’s time to make good on all that potential.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: Ideally, Public Enemies.