Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jennifer's Body: A total nottie

Jennifer's Body (2009) • View trailer for Jennifer's Body
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, gore, profanity and teen sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.09
Buy DVD: Jennifer's Body• Buy Blu-Ray: Jennifer's Body (+ Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Absent the involvement of an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Jennifer's Body would be just another easily ignored, late-summer teen fright flick dumped with the expectation of two weeks on the big screen, prior to fitful video afterlife a few months down the road.

But expectations are raised when the credits include Diablo Cody, who took a well-deserved Oscar for her original screenplay for Juno, and charmed both the industry audience and home viewers with a particularly exuberant acceptance speech. Cody's clever and whimsically snarky script for Juno demonstrated a sensitivity for teens in general, and misfit girls in particular; fans therefore were more than a little intrigued when she selected a gal-centered horror entry as her next project.
Despite having a loyal girlfriend -- even if she has gotten a bit strange lately --
Chip (Johnny Simmons) quite foolishly allows himself to be seduced by
Jennifer (Megan Fox) on the night of the high school prom. Little does he
know that this encounter is about to move up the hill, into the sort of
dilapidated, shrubbery-infested indoor swimming pool that exists only in
horror movies ... where Jennifer's appetite will prove more cannibalistic
than carnal.

Surely, we hoped, Cody could bring a fresh perspective to a genre dominated by male writers and directors far too willing to demean, debase and disembowel women.

It didn't work out that way.

To be sure, most of the on-camera victims in Jennifer's Body are guys, but they're not exactly misogynistic jerks whose fates would be greeted with vicarious delight; indeed, the one granted the most attention is just the sort of disenfranchised nice guy who would have been one of Juno's best friends. Of course, that could be the point: Cody builds this character into a well-defined individual, rather than a disposable, two-dimensional nonentity. His eventual fate hurts a bit.

The most gruesome demise, however, still is reserved for a female character, and hack director Karyn Kusama  most notorious for the sci-fi bomb Aeon Flux, with Charlize Theron  lingers on this sequence just as exploitatively as the genre usually demands.

Actually, Kusama doesn't bring much to this party. She and cinematographer M. David Mullen orchestrate only one really great shot: an eerie, late-night tableau that shows the next victim, just barely seen waaaay at the end of a deserted street, as his silhouette moves toward the house where he'll meet his eventual fate. It's a wonderfully moody image, and there ain't nothin' else like it in the rest of this humdrum and utterly predictable film.

That's the most disappointing part: Jennifer's Body is nothing fresh, and has no surprises. It's not fun in the manner of TV's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or the more recent Being Human; it's actually rather depressing.

And Cody's instinct for tart-tongued teen dialogue veers exclusively in the direction of relentless vulgarity, as if to demonstrate that girls can be just as potty-mouthed as boys. Well, we've actually known this for quite some time, as other films already have demonstrated.

2002's The Sweetest Thing was much more hilariously coarse, and its crude humor was consistent with its trio of unapologetically earthy women. The frequent application of tawdry smut in this film, in notable contrast, is frequently ill-timed and often off-putting: bursts of crass dialogue inserted as if Cody simply wants to shock us, rather than because it makes sense within the context of a given scene.

Following a completely pointless prologue that takes place after most of the events in this story have gone down, Jennifer's Body introduces the key players in this nasty little melodrama, which unfolds at the small-town high school in the wonderfully named community of Devil's Kettle.

The town has an unusual claim to fame: a waterfall that continuously dumps its limitless gallons into a basin-like hole from which no water ever emerges.

Buffy probably would have recognized this as a sign of the Hellmouth, but nothing much gets made of this unusual natural phenomenon.

Hot babe Jennifer (Megan Fox) and the more mousy Needy (Amanda Seyfried, well remembered from Mamma Mia and TV's Big Love) have been friends since childhood, although at this point the relationship is more habitual than heartfelt. Jennifer has grown into a contemptuous, self-centered, ultra-attitudinal slut with little use for anybody else: a nasty flirt who uses her body to get whatever she wants.

Needy  a nickname for Anita, which we can assume Jennifer came up with  has, on the other hand, achieved the wisdom of the eternally downtrodden.

Years spent in Jennifer's shadow have made Needy a much more sensitive and perceptive young woman, and she meshes well with her equally kind-hearted boyfriend, Chip (a nicely shaded part by Johnny Simmons).

Jennifer drags Needy to the local road house one night, to catch an indie rock band dubbed Low Shoulder; the resulting concert literally burns up the place. Casualties abound, although our two heroines and the band members escape. The latter invite Jennifer for a ride in their "cool van," and of course she accepts ... which, actually, is pretty damn strange. Jennifer is shallow, not stupid, and you'd think her feral instincts would have kicked in, since this trip couldn't end in anything but a five-way gang rape.

Cody and Kusama never sell this necessary scene, and it's merely the first of several off-kilter story elements that play more like something taking place in a dream, than in real life.

Anyway, that van trip does end with a vicious twist: a human sacrifice. Wanting an edge on all the competition, the members of Low Shoulder have decided that their only sure trip to fame involves satanic rituals (a nice bit of mordant humor, that). Band leader Nikolai (Adam Brody) therefore turns Jennifer into shish kebab with a rather big knife.

Trouble is, Jennifer is far from the virgin demanded by the ritual. And since she isn't pure, the unleashed demonic forces revive and inhabit her body. From that point forward, in true succubus fashion, she must seduce and then devour her conquests, lest her gorgeous looks begin to fade.

The rest of the film divides its attention between Jennifer's now-insatiable carnality and appetite, and Needy's growing awareness that something is wronger than usual with her BFF. The former's behavior, while initially amusing because of the implications behind Jennifer's every word and deed, quickly becomes tedious; Fox simply isn't skilled enough, as an actress, to keep her one-dimensional part interesting.

Seyfried, on the other hand, becomes the sole reason for remaining in our seats. She thoroughly inhabits her character, from the necessary physical characteristics  the nerdy glasses, the slight slouch, an occasional atmosphere of insecurity  to a persuasive range of emotions that runs from terror to grim determination. We're right there, in Needy's head, as she tries to make sense of the transformed Jennifer's behavior, and inexorably is drawn to the worst conclusions.

It's a tough sell, but Seyfried pulls it off. She's really the only reason to waste time with this otherwise forgettable flick.

Unlike Juno, which felt fresh, Jennifer's Body is mostly familiar and disappointingly obvious. We've seen vomited bile and levitating demons many times before; that stuff goes all the way back to The Exorcist. Distended jaws and razor-sharp teeth certainly aren't novel, either; nor is a sharpened flagpole through the chest.

Ironically, the one truly original, breath-catchingly novel scene feels out of place here: an extreme close-up of two parted mouths poised for an exploratory kiss that becomes tantalizingly, teasingly erotic, conveying a longing desire for unexplored territory far better than any dialogue ever could. But such a delectable moment more properly belongs in a French sex comedy, and certainly not in this tawdry freak show.

I suppose there's something to be said for following a surprise triumph by indulging in junk; that way, Cody escapes all the inevitable "How can she top this?" speculation. Our expectations suitably diminished, we've now been set up to be delighted all over again, by Cody's next project.

At least, I hope it plays out that way. I'd hate to think Cody was a one-hit wonder.

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