Friday, September 17, 2010

Academy of the Underrated: Jennifer's Body

Jennifer's Body poster and Amazon link
I began watching JENNIFER’S BODY with some trepidation. One of the more poorly received films of last year, this horror comedy marked a backlash against both star Megan Fox and writer Diablo Cody, both apparently having gotten too big for their respective britches. I wasn’t interested enough to see it in theaters, and the reviews weren’t encouraging. But I couldn’t help but wonder. Though I didn’t think JUNO was a great movie, I never developed the disdain for Diablo Cody that others have, and I found the rush to take down one of the few Hollywood screenwriters to get attention and some level of creative control disheartening. The screenwriter is generally treated as an easily replaceable and disposable commodity by a production, and often as a nonentity by critics, so anyone who can actually draw attention in this role is okay by me. As for Megan Fox, eh, I got nothing against her, but then I didn’t see JONAH HEX. In any case I had to see if maybe the narrative of the prideful screenwriter and the overhyped model getting their just desserts was obscuring the actual movie.

To be sure, it’s easy to see why JENNIFER’S BODY didn’t go over so well. It’s the kind of horror-comedy blend where it’s not entirely clear where one genre ends and the other begins; it’s definitely funnier than the marketing implied (and they’re still trying to sell it in the horror section), but the blend isn’t always successful. But after an uneven start the picture reveals itself as creative, clever, and more well-thought-out than it appears. It tells a good story with a certain amount of visual flair and energy, thanks to some stylish direction by Karyn Kusama, and deserves better than its reputation.

The film stars Amanda Seyfried as Anita/”Needy”, your average, slightly bookish high school student (albeit an incredibly gorgeous one), who is best friends with star cheerleader and general alpha female Jennifer Check (Fox). Jennifer drags Needy to a concert by Cold Shoulder, a somewhat bland emo-ish band with a hunky lead singer (Adam Brody), but during the show the bar catches fire and the two barely escape with their lives when Jennifer is spirited away by the band. Later that night Jennifer bursts into Needy’s house, bloody and disoriented, and devours a whole roast chicken before vomiting up strange black goo. The next morning, she’s back at school and surprisingly chirpy, given the horrible fire which killed several students and faculty. But she’s got a secret: she’s now a demon who’s taken to seducing, killing, and eating local boys- the murders, obviously, plunge the school into a deeper funk, and Needy has to figure out what’s going on in order to keep her own boyfriend (played by Johnny Simmons) from becoming Jennifer’s next meal.

The whole “school tragedy” element is one that I wasn’t actually expecting; it was never advertised, and it’s both the source of some of the film’s flaws and its best aspects. At first, it just doesn’t seem to gel. There’s something a bit too real about the sadness and the grief hanging in the air after the disaster, with students crying in hallways and teachers struggling to address their classes (though I did enjoy J. K. Simmons as a professor saying “We can’t let the fire win.”) Compare with HEATHERS, the film’s most obvious antecedent, where the community response to an apparent rash of suicides was so farcical that we were clearly staying within the bounds of black comedy. But there’s a terrific turn with Cold Shoulder suddenly becoming famous through its “support” for the school and a town it can’t even name, shamelessly exploiting the tragedy with the school gladly participating (to the point that the big dance is named after the band’s hit single that they were playing when the fire started.)

The band’s own complicity in what happened to Jennifer is ultimately revealed, of course, and what that is and how it’s executed is kind of brilliant. It becomes a nice major through line for the story as a whole, thus acting in parallel to the more straightforward “girl becomes evil demon” plot. The film is not content to just run through the motions of a story that, on the surface, isn’t much more than a single BUFFY episode; there are twists and bends and things that indicate more than cursory thought being put into the action.

Interestingly enough, the one thing Cody as a writer is both most known and most derided for- overly snappy and hip dialogue- is not as prominent here as in JUNO. It’s there, but I didn’t pick up any real eye-rollers on the level of “honest to blog” or “Your eggo is preggo”. Then again, perhaps I was waiting for dialogue like that and so it didn’t stick out. This gets into a very, very subjective realm, and I’m sure others who have seen the movie can point to pieces of dialogue they thought were absolute howlers, but I think the volume was dialed back a tad.

This is really Seyfried’s film, despite Megan Fox getting all the press. She has more screen time, gets to do more as a character, and makes a stronger impression. This is a good thing, as she’s a fine actress and easy on the eyes. Fox is not bad. I suspect a better actress could have added a little more texture to the character, but she’s believable. One of the big obstacles the picture does have is that Jennifer is a bit of a bitch before she becomes a demoness, so not only is the shift less radical (which I don’t actually mind- it’s kind of interesting that she becomes a monster but is still to some extent the same person), it’s a bit harder to believe that she and Needy are BFFs. Then again, they’ve known each other since the sandbox days, and it’s not unheard of for jerks in both genders to acquire non-jerk friends through sheer force of personality; they’re not nice but they command attention. Personally I thought this worked, but it’s another fiddly area where your mileage may vary. I do have to give credit for some amazing cameos in the picture, including Amy Sedaris as Needy’s mom.

Back when I posted my Best of 2009 piece I noted that I was leaving the “most underrated” spot empty, since the movies I liked were generally ones that the critics did as well. Is JENNIFER’S BODY the Most Underrated Film of 2009? I’ll say yes, for now. I reserve the option to change this at any time.

Really, though, this is worth a reevaluation. It’s nowhere near the disaster I was dreading, though obviously I had some hope or I would never have put it in the Netflix queue to start with. I hope Cody continues to grow as a writer; her dialogue is an acquired taste still, but she has a strong grasp of character and the ability to weave an interesting story, and both of those things are much more important anyway. Anyway, I think she’s doing a TV show now so she should be okay. The point is, I do have to conclude that this film was the unfortunate victim of a backlash that had very little to do with its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s not a great picture, but I felt surprisingly good at the end of it.

Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Karyn Kusama

Grade: B

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