Director : Karyn Kusama
Screenplay : Diablo Cody
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Megan Fox (Jennifer Check), Amanda Seyfried (Needy Lesnicky), Johnny Simmons (Chip), Adam Brody (Nikolai Wolf), Sal Cortez (Chas), Ryan Levine (Mick), Juan Riedinger (Dirk), Colin Askey (Keyboardist), Chris Pratt (Roman Duda), Juno Ruddell (Officer Warzak), Kyle Gallner (Colin Gray), Josh Emerson (Jonas Konelle), J.K. Simmons (Mr. Wroblewski), Amy Sedaris (Needy’s Mom), Cynthia Stevenson (Chip’s Mom)
Although it was written around the same time as her Oscar-winning script for Juno (2007), it is unlikely that Diablo Cody’s work on the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body will be taking home any trophies. In Juno Cody was able to turn the teen comedy genre inside out with a ticklish mixture of the hilarious and the humane, and in Jennifer’s Body she is trying to do something similar, but the various ingredients she tosses into the script blender mix into a lumpy mess, rather than the smooth concoction you might expect. The film’s horror elements aren’t particularly scary, and while they do have a certain currency in satirizing the parasitical and vicious nature of teen-girl relationships, even that element of the film feels strangely undercooked, despite a plethora of saucy dialogue and sarcastic quips.
The film’s first serious misstep is the manner in which it opens, with our protagonist and narrator, the baby-faced and ridiculously named Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried), in an insane asylum. That might be fine, as it suggests in typical horror fashion that things will not end well, but the gratuitous manner in which this sequence depicts Needy’s current condition (particularly the way she kicks a well-meaning nutritionist halfway across the cafeteria) saps the film’s denouement of a potentially slick twist. Soon enough, though, the narrative flashes back several months where we meet Needy when she’s in a much better place as a high school senior in a small town called Devil’s Kettle, which is named for a strange phenomenon nearby in which a waterfall runs into a large hole, the other end of which no one can find (an actual place in Minnesota, although the town is fictional). Needy is best friends with Jennifer Check (Megan Fox), a beautiful cheerleader who is in every way her opposite: confident where Needy is insecure, extraverted where Needy is shy, glamorous where Need is mousy, and fiercely single where Needy is attached to her band-drummer boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons). Yet, they have been BFFs since the “sandbox days,” and friends they remain.
The story takes a turn when Jennifer and Needy go to a local tavern to hear an out-of-town indie rock band fronted by the Brandon Flowers-esque Nikolai Wolf (Adam Brody). During their set the tavern catches fire and turns into a roaring inferno that is unnervingly reminiscent of the fire that gutted a New Jersey club a few years ago, after which a clearly shell-shocked Jennifer disappears into the band’s van and doesn’t reappear until much later that night with a particularly diabolical look in her eyes, blood all over her clothes, and a penchant for projectile vomiting black bile. It turns out that something happened to Jennifer that night, turning her into a flesh-eating ghoul who must devour the local teenage male populace in order to maintain her beauty and vitality.
The idea of the local high school fox being a genuine man-eater has both horrific and comic potential, but Cody and director Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux) never quite seem to lock in on the significance ... if there is any. Is Jennifer supposed to be the ultimate teen vixen, the kind who could literally chew up and spit out the evil trio in Heathers (1989)--a film whose wicked tone of adolescent-skewering black comedy Jennifer’s Body is clearly trying to emulate? Or is she meant to be a victim, a girl whose own hidden insecurities have turned her monstrous? Is the film punishing her for flaunting her sexuality so shamelessly or punishing the men who encourage such behavior by reducing women to objects? (The casting of Megan Fox is intriguing in this regard since, up until now, people know her almost exclusively as the slickly fetishized and utterly empty object of Michael Bay’s leering camera lens in the Transformers movies.)
Making the horrors of high school into literal horror has an inherent appeal, and it’s amusingly summed up by Needy informing Chip that Jennifer is genuinely evil, not “high school evil.” Yet, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Jennifer’s Body just never quite connects the dots in that way that, say, Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) did. In some ways, the film is much better when it’s aiming at larger social targets for its satire, particularly the manner in which the town itself and the invading hoards of media lap up the various tragedies, but each time a little less so. The peripheral characters are virtually all caricatures, from J.K. Simmons’s one-handed, three-hanky civics teacher, to Amy Sedaris’ turn as Needy’s overworked mom. The film’s generally working-class aesthetic is also caricatured via the various interiors that feel like they haven’t been updated since the late 1970s, which may also be a way of trying to visually align the film with the golden era of socially conscious American horror.
Kusama has clearly absorbed the best horror tropes and spits them out on cue, whether it be the creepy walk down a dark hallways trying to locate a sound, or the all-importance of deserted and decaying locations, of which there seem to be quite a few in Devil’s Kettle. She also knows the value of the gratuitous, particularly an extreme close-up of Jennifer and Needy’s foregone liplock, which plays less as an organic development of the story than it does a sop to the adolescent male demographic that just wants to see Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried get it on. Elements of Jennifer’s Body seem corny and hokey on purpose, particularly the shoddy digital effects work that turns Jennifer’s pouty smile into a razor-toothed maw from time to time, perhaps because the film is essentially being prepackaged as a guilty pleasure rather than earning it through genuine incompetence. It’s always better if it’s earned.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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