The challenge here is to review Jennifer’s Body as a
movie and not in the context of the virulent and misogynistic
backlashes against Megan Fox and Diablo Cody. And the truth is, when
looked at as just a movie, completely free of all the associations the
leading lady and the screenwriter have in the modern media, Jennifer’s Body is… pretty good.
The biggest complaint I have about Jennifer’s Body, in
fact, is that it contains the possibility of being much better than
pretty good. There’s a truly terrific movie lurking in here, with good
leading performances, a smart, layered script and sure-handed direction
all in evidence. But these elements never quite gel in the right ways,
and a handful of small niggling problems add up to keep the movie from
reaching its possible heights.
But even with that frustration, Jennifer’s Body works.
When the most evil emo band in the world, Low Shoulder, comes to the
shitty town of Devil’s Kettle to make a virgin sacrifice in order to
gain fame, they offer up the wrong girl. Jennifer, played by an almost
hyper-sexual Megan Fox, is certainly no virgin (not even backdoor, we
learn), and so while the sacrifice works – Low Shoulder gets huge – the
body of Jennifer finds itself home to a flesh-hungry demon.
Jennifer’s the most popular girl in school and her best friend is the
hugely nerdy Anita ‘Needy’ Lesniki. All giant eyeballs behind thick
glasses and frizzy hair simply stowed away in a ponytail, Needy is
played with actual depth by Amanda Seyfried, who had been on my radar
as a striking looker but not as an actress before this. Needy could be
just a whiny nerd character but Cody’s script and Seyfried’s
performance create a real, textured person. And Seyfried has actual,
magical chemistry with Fox, which allows you to believe that these two
diametrically opposed types are, in fact, BFFs.
Needy has a boyfriend, Chip, who is a pretty regular kid who just
doesn’t understand the connection between the two friends. Johnny
Simmons (soon to be seen as Young Neil in Scott Pilgrim vs the World)
is the secret weapon of this movie, a low-key heart of humor and
decency, and the real audience identification character. See, he’s the
guy who questions the Diablo Cody-speak that comes out of Jennifer’s
mouth all the time.
Well, I guess this is as good a time as any to approach this subject:
the Diablo Cody element. There’s a certain segment who seem to be
almost religiously opposed to Cody’s dialogue, bitching and whining
that it’s not ‘naturalistic.’ Which would be a reasonable complaint
were the writer going for ‘naturalistic.’ She’s going for ‘stylized.’
And while Juno opens with a very densely stylized ten
minutes (which I think exists to work us into the film’s slightly
heightened reality, which is brought crashing down as the story goes
along), Jennifer’s Body doesn’t ever get as stylized. In
fact, the Cody-speak pretty much exists only between Jennifer and
Needy; it’s their BFF code, a private slang that has to be explained to
people like Chip. This is, in effect, great screenwriting; instead of
simply telling us that these two have their own private world they
share, Cody goes so far as to give it its own language. It’s character
expressed through action, although in this case the action is speech.
This isn’t hipster speak, this is just fine screenwriting.
But to be fair, Jennifer’s Body‘s biggest failing also comes from its screenplay. Cody sets up a high school world that seems to be about to get positively Heathers or The Breakfast Club-esque
in its biodiversity, but the script drops the ball fairly quickly.
There’s a scene where Needy fears that the demonic Jennifer will attack
a school dance; that scene would have worked so much better if the kids
at the dance had been defined. Instead the script only defines the few
boys who become Jennifer’s victims, and even then the script presents
too few victims.
Partially this speaks to Jennifer’s Body‘s war with
itself. On one hand it’s trying to be fairly intimate, and was probably
written to be made on the cheap – the climactic moment of the film
involves the tearing away of a BFF locket – but on the other hand it’s
also trying to be a Hollywood thrill ride. Director Karyn Kusama has a
big vision – there are some amazing shots in the film, like an epic
view of Jennifer swimming in a lake, a zoom in on a football field and
a shot of Jennifer hovering above a pool in a party dress – but she’s
painting on a small canvass. The most obvious comparison point for this
film is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which also took a hellish look at high school and which managed to better balance the epic and the personal.
Even with that balance never quite being reached, Jennifer’s Body is a horror movie in the most interesting tradition, one that’s actually about something. It’s Mean Girls with
murder, a movie that’s not about the high school battle of the sexes
but about the ways friendships fall apart. Jennifer’s victims tend to
be boys that Needy likes or in whom she expresses some interest, and
the psychosexual relationship that’s most powerful here isn’t between
Jennifer and her victims but Jennifer and Needy. And it’s a fascinating
relationship; while demonic Jennifer literally feeds on boys the way
that human Jennifer once did in a metaphorical way, but she still looks
to Needy as her center no matter what. When Jennifer kills an emo kid
she sits astride him in a position of fierce sexual dominance, when
Needy sleeps with Chip she’s beneath him, but when Needy and Jennifer
finally share a kiss (that Kusama shoots in nearly pornographic detail,
a moment of unabashed sexuality and sensuality unlike one that I’ve
seen in a mainstream film for a while) and tumble into bed, it’s Needy
who is on top. This film is about the push and pull of these two. It’s
a girl movie in the truest sense in that it’s about the relationships
Megan Fox surprises. Many critics single her out as being unable to
act, a critique by which I am baffled. I’m sure she’ll never win an
Oscar, but the slight flatness of her performance is obviously
intentional. She’s playing the demon looking through Jennifer’s eyes;
there’s always a layer of distance between Jennifer and whatever she’s
looking at, and Fox manages to bring a truly predatory gleam into her
eyes. She’s got evil down pat, and she’s got sex down even patter. Fox
is the real deal screen siren, a walking blaze of fuck energy who
deserves the attention she gets from the mainstream media. She controls
the frame, and she actually exudes a sense of humor and intelligence
while doing so.
The other big surprise for me was Adam Brody. I’m not terribly familiar
with his work – look deep inside yourself if you watched The OC regularly
and try to figure out how you can become a better person – but he’s
incredibly funny as the lead singer of Low Shoulder. His role is very
small, but Brody has a shit ton of fun and brings a very different
energy to the proceedings.
In another world Jennifer’s Body, a smart, intriguing,
flawed horror movie aimed at teenage girls and the boys who lust after
them, opened without all of the extracurricular bullshit baggage. That
wasn’t this world, though, and instead of watching the movie too many
critics watched the backstory. The really tragic part is that the only
person being hurt by all the nonsense surrounding the film is the
person who probably needed the film the most, director Karyn Kusama,
coming off of Aeon Flux. Cody’s career is too powerful
to be stopped by one flop, and Megan Fox has the sheer qualities of a
movie star, which no amount of hating can change.
Hopefully, though, Hollywood suits can see through the crap and realize that Kusama’s work on Jennifer’s Body is
really strong, and that there’s a good movie buried under all the
headlines and hate. And hopefully you, who probably stayed away from
the film this weekend, give it a chance.