Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Jennifer's Body

* / * * * *

When I heard that Diablo Cody, that stripper-turned-Oscar-winner who somehow managed to steal the pop culture spotlight for her cloying, beyond annoying, confused "Juno" two years ago, was the screenwriter on "Jennifer's Body," I had two thoughts: a) oh cool, that really annoying screenwriter is going to do a genre subversion film. That sounds like something I might like. b) oh no, that really annoying screenwriter is going to do a genre subversion film. That sounds like something I might hate. Yes, the right answer was B.

If the saving grace of "Juno," and the reason why so many people fell for it, was the earnestness of its cast and the sincere spunk of its heroine, "Jennifer's Body" lacks a saving grace, for it is completely devoid of an earnest moment. It is a movie written almost exclusively from left field, with gigantic pitches being hurled at the catcher from every angle. Diablo Cody, in her unending mission to be the cutest, most quotable, and hippest writer in Hollywood, has fashioned a film so annoying in design and so obvious in execution that it seeks no redemption. This is what a wasted opportunity looks like.

Megan Fox remains an actress who's built an entire career off a stellar set of breasts. If Michael was in love with her, director Karyn Kusama fetishizes her. Never are we in doubt that this film is not about Jennifer but her BODY. It teases us with glimpses and provocatively lit shots of her cleavage, her eyes, her legs, but curiously never goes in for the kill. No, perverts, you don't see Megan Fox naked, but isn't that a curiosity? This is a film about bodies - about stacks of bodies, about bodies as sexual objects, about the objectification of the physical, the actual weakness of masculine bodies, but it so cleverly withholds from us its titular 'promise.' Not that the film has any problem with its violent content or even its moments of sexuality; it merely creates a confounding teasing game, as if many of its edits were designed around a desire to NOT show Megan Fox's boobs, which seems silly instead of clever, since it never withholds anything else. But I digress.

"Jennifer's Body" is told through (largely unnecessary and extremely uninteresting) voice-over by Jennifer's "BFF" Needy (that's short for Anita, but if you think it's a fairly obvious name for the character's overarching trait - hey, you guessed right!), a sexually confused high schooler played with little flair by Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried is dressed as would expect - poor-fitting clothes, little makeup, and glasses - as if we are supposed to be surprised when she actually takes off her shirt that she is really sexy underneath. Why the film feels the need to try and downplay her sensuality is beyond me. We're meant to believe that Needy is completely uninteresting, especially when she stands next to Jennifer, but its methods of doing this just make her a worthless character to think about. There's nothing special about her, just her ridiculous love for Jennifer (the only reason she doesn't go to the cops? Because friends keep secrets! One example of a bizarre honor system that's always brought up in reference but never really becomes exploited. If you want to watch the same concept explored in deep detail, watch "Ghost World.")

But if you've missed the plot of the film: Needy and Jennifer are totally best friends for life (they have BFF necklaces, and in case you didn't see that, there's an extreme close-up of it early in the film, even though we never see it again until a slow motion shot at the climax, and even then, it feels like a pretty worthless touch), until the night of a massive bar fire that kills many and traumatizes the town of Devil's Kettle (going for gold, there! How strange also that we NEVER see any police work in a film with tons of murders and death? The most we get are sirens. The police are always referred to, but for some reason never seem to matter). Afterwards, Jennifer becomes moody and violent, before it becomes clear she's possessed by a demon that gains power by feeding off the flesh of her male classmates.

If "Jennifer's Body" does anything well, it's to create a stage on which to talk about female/female sexuality. Needy always appears bisexual, and the film ultimately seems to suggest that her relationship with Jennifer gives her "power" (but if that power is good or not is weirdly ambivalent). In a film where the camera is always moving in on something, where the female body is always openly on display (even if there isn't any nudity), and where men are now the emotional weaklings while all the women move in seductive slow motion, it's hard to see its take as "complex" or even remotely invigorating, especially when positioned against the wealth of gay pictures it's obviously drawing on. Jennifer is a sexual predator, and Needy is willing prey. The two do a tango of sexual tension, even sharing an erotic kiss shot in extreme close-up (so extreme we just see their the filmmakers want us to think their high school horror comedy is about to become a softcore porn? Because that's how they shot it), but it's almost like "Jennifer's Body" is afraid to cross that line. Needy still wants to project that heterosexuality and kill the demon living in her best friend, even though the end of the film is about her having gained from Jennifer's transgressions.

This film is not sexually transgressive. It is a simple inversion of the genre (men are victims, not women) where sex still equals death while letting females live out a sexual fantasy. But like everything in "Jennifer's Body," it's obvious and not entirely original. The small indy horror "Teeth" had a similar idea. It traded on the fear of female sexuality with a violent morality tale about castration. It also allowed its female character to enact sexual power and turn the masculine predator/prey system to her advantage. So enter Cody and Kusama, who try to blend horror, teen angst, and high school comedy into a demented perversion.

It lacks the scares of a real monster movie, or the humor of a real camp movie. Even terrific secondary players like JK Simmons are undone by the film's sheer insistence on being as quirky as it can in every moment (his high school teacher has a hook for a hand. This is never explained, nor does it serve the story in any fashion. It just exists to give us something to laugh at while covering for the fact that he just plays a recycled stupid teacher character). Fox actually pulls it off - but only because her character is a one-note monster, whose sarcasm and ungodly mutation is its central subject. She actually latches onto a lot of the dialogue and makes it her own, even if the shtick gets old 20 minutes in. Still, it doesn't take much skill to write the kind of dialogue Cody has assembled here (combining "gay" and "lesbian" into "lesbi-gay" or "freaky" and "retarded" into "freak-tarded" - wow, who knew such clever plays-on-words could exist?!). Can a film really attain cult status if it panders this much to an audience? If it comes out saying, "hey guys, this movie may be pretty cheesy and weak on plot, but I wrote a whole bunch of dialogue that you'll love to put in everyday conversation! Just watch me on DVD late at night and repeat the lines for weeks," shouldn't it just be discarded as trash clawing up a rock face? I have no space in my heart for a writer who essentially begs you to quote her dialogue instead of trying to develop characters worth caring about or a plot that does more than make several obvious detours. The only actor who came alive for me was Adam Brody as, get this, the lead singer of an indy alt-rock band that tries to sacrifice Jennifer to Satan so his band will make it. His few moments in the film are splendid and vivacious, the only real marks of life in a film so guided and pre-determined by its set-pieces revolving chiefly around death, and their "#1 Single" that plays over and over again is literally the funniest thing in the film.

If "Jennifer's Body" weren't so intent on being so clever, it could have developed its sexuality theme into a much darker arena. Images of Jennifer eating her classmates, emerging in slow motion from a black lake, and straddling Needy all work within the film. They lay great groundwork for something extremely dark about violence, sex, homosexuality, high school, and REPRESSION! "Jennifer's Body" is NOT a film without ideas - they're all just swimming around in a confused circle, running into each other. The structural limitations the film imposes on itself keep it from seriously considering the psychological implications of the repression its characters inhabit.

It works better as a film about the angst of female sexuality and the repression of sexual urges that ultimately resurface as violence. If it had a better editor who could match shots and intercut with more drama or since of shaping a scene, this could have worked, creating both suspense and parallels between characters. If it had developed characters BEYOND necessary dimensions or one-note quirks, their conflicts would have seemed more interesting (like Needy's obnoxiously cute boyfriend who always says Jennifer's evil, but then lets himself get seduced by her in a matter of...five minutes). If it had a climax that wasn't so obvious or so logic-ridden (Jennifer gains the ability to hover late in the film for no real reason and with no explanation, just so the end of the film can work), or if it allowed itself to be more campy, it could have felt more packaged, more shaped.

Instead, this feels like something an undergraduate screenwriter and director got together and made for fun after watching one too many 80s horror flicks. Any thrill is drained on the amateur feel of the filmmaking, while any comedy is wasted on its inability to hold back.

1 comment:

Aunt Karen said...

Awesome review, Jimmy. You make me want to see this piece of crap. I'm not sure that's a good thing...