Monday, January 11, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Jennifer's Body (2009)

"Hell is a teenage girl."

-- Anita "Needy" (Amanda Seyfried) waxes philosophical in Jennifer's Body (2009)


Well, here's a toughie...

The funny quote about teenage girls -- excerpted at the top of this review -- reflects the element I most appreciated about Jennifer's Body (2009), a bracing, black horror-comedy from writer Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama.


In the spirit of that line, Jennifer's Body is droll, cynical, harsh-to-the-max, and undeniably clever.


However, the film doesn't quite work as a horror piece, and the pervasive (if delightful politically-incorrect...) humor engenders an overall sense of distance from the material.


Indeed, many aspects of the film's narrative are handled with such kookiness that the viewer ends up feeling wholly removed from the characters and their dilemmas. Some viewers may interpret this sense of distance from the nuts-and-bolts horror aspects of the film as actually making fun of the genre. Which probably explains why so many horror-conscious critics panned Jennifer's Body. Some viewed the piece as a slap in the face. And they may have a point: for horror to work well, it can't be scatter shot and inconsistent; you can't just throw anything and everything at the screen and hope it all sticks (unless you're Sam Raimi engineering a blood flood).

Yet, Jennifer's Body boasts something I find infinitely valuable in horror films: a distinctive world view...an original voice. Too many horror movies today rely on recycled world-views and conventional wisdom, and Jennifer's Body, for all the flaws it plainly evidences is determinedly different. Although it is garbed in the costume of a horror film, the movie's purpose is plainly satire in the mold of Juvenal, meaning it is contemptuous, abrasive, savage and in-your-face.

Personally, I wholeheartedly approve of that.

Here, the target is America's high school culture and the changes mores of our young people. Specifically, the film involves a floundering, obscure indie band, Low Shoulder, that can't make it big and thus resorts to Satanism for dummies to achieve fifteen minutes of fame. Such Satanism requires the sacrifice of a virgin, only the band can't find one...

Surely, this is exactly how Ashlee Simpson, Paris Hilton, the Gosselins and other non-talents achieved their place in the spotlight...right?

Rather daringly, Jennifer's Body also contemptuously gazes at our society's tendency to first rubberneck at human disaster; and then move on with touchy-feely, popcorn platitudes and mock catharsis. We saw it after Columbine; we saw it after 9/11 too. Between endless, exploitative footage of bloodied students at a high school shooting or the Twin Towers falling down, the news networks spouted truisms about "faith," "American strength," traditional values," etc. We were thus permitted to gawk at tragedy, and then turn around and feel good about ourselves. Yay us!

In Jennifer's Body, Cody comments on one town's "tragedy boner" after a tragic bar fire (brought on by the Satanists' agenda), and the media's obsession with the accident...at least until another tragedy comes along. Then, when it's time for someone else's fifteen minutes of fame, "sorrow" proves to be "last week's emotion" in the town of Devil's Kettle. The movie even delves into the strange myths that the media creates and perpetuates during such national tragedies. Remember how CNN reported on a non-existent Trench coat Mafia at Columbine? Or told us how one brave Christian girl dared to tell the Columbine killers she believed in God before she was shot? Pure fiction both. Here, the pure fiction is that the band Low Shoulder bravely rescued townspeople from the fire. Of course, this myth just makes the performers that much more famous. They even give the tragedy a theme song...

Jennifer's Body
also gazes at our society's disturbing trend of sexualizing younger and younger females; the way that attire, pop music, and societal expectations transform adolescent girls into powerful objects of male sexual desire. That's almost precisely what vapid Jennifer (Megan Fox) becomes after becoming inhabited by a demon.

Only this sex object bites back.

In the end, when some of Jennifer's power (not the evil part, I guess..) is transplanted into nerdy Anita, the movie provides an unmistakable message of female empowerment; a taking back and controlling of the mini-skirted, skinny, bare-midriff Bratz/Britney Spears image society relentlessly forces on our young girls. If you think I'm making too much of this trend, go to any Target or Wal Mart store and just take a gander at the clothes being designed and marketed to ten year old girls. You won't doubt me. It makes me glad I'm raising a boy, not a girl. (And hell, I'm a liberal...)

Jennifer Body's secret weapon is Megan Fox, who -- let's face it -- has been a willing vehicle for the exploitation of the young female form in pop culture cinema. As such, she's perfect in the role of wolf in sheep's clothing. Only Nixon could go to China, and all that. And I'll say this for any doubters: Fox can act. Her performance here is quite accomplished because it takes the material at face value and doesn't camp it up, which would have been disastrous. Instead, Fox cheerily spouts the most cynical, filthy, sexual dialogue you can imagine, and does it with the aura and attitude of total naivete and youth. At one point, she discusses the physical after-effects of anal sex with the wondrous, guilelessness...of a virgin; a paradoxical contradiction. When demonically possessed of voracious appetites, Fox's Jennifer is a warning to the youth-obsessed, male-dominated culture that inappropriately sexualizes these girls: be careful what you wish for.

Given the message of female empowerment and the distinctive mode of communication here (Cody's zippy, pop-culture heavy dialogue), Jennifer's Body is clearly this generation's answer to the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) -- the movie, not the TV show. And interestingly, it shares in common that old movie's central flaw: it isn't scary in the slightest. Jennifer's Body makes the terminal mistake of playing the villains and their evil plans for laughs. Rutger Hauer and Pee Wee Herman kind of camped it up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and the result was that the bottom fell out of the satire; the horror wasn't grounded in anything genuinely horrific. Though Fox doesn't play her villainous role in campy fashion, the movie's other villains -- a group of "emo" "Satanists with awesome hair cuts" -- are so silly, so over-the-top, so obvious, that -- again -- the bottom falls out of the movie. There's no sense of menace. Without it, the movie just kind of bops from one set-piece to another, with half-thought-out ideas taking the forefront. For instance, Anita is mildly psychic..sometimes.

I would also be remiss if I didn't point out a lesbian kiss late in the film that -- entirely contrary to the movie's thematic point --panders the male culture's interest in seeing two hot women get it on.

I understand that there's been a kind of backlash against Diablo Cody; the belief that Cody's dialogue is too hip; too glib. I disagree: the dialogue is the best thing about Jennifer's Body, in tandem with Fox's blunt delivery. This may be a matter of subjective taste, but I would rather watch a film witha distinctive (even if occasionally annoying) voice, than a cookie-cutter product extruded from the Hollywood assembly line. Finally, I'll offer this caveat: Jennifer's Body may play better a few years from now, once we've separated ourselves from this particular moment in history and can thus more easily detect the very context that Jennifer's Body satirizes.

So how's this for a guarded recommendation: Jennifer's Body is "freaktarded." It' a pretty good comedy and a pretty lousy horror film.

3 comments:

  1. Jennifer's Body also gazes at our society's disturbing trend of sexualizing younger and younger females; the way that attire, pop music, and societal expectations transform adolescent girls into powerful objects of male sexual desire.

    You make an excellent point, John. Ever since my daughter was born, I've become more attuned to this (sadly, it shouldn't have taken just that event to this; but, there it is). Another good review, and I'll take a look at this for Cody's writing, JKM. Thanks for this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "In Jennifer's Body, Cody comments on one town's "tragedy boner" after a tragic bar fire (brought on by the Satanists' agenda), and the media's obsession with the accident...at least until another tragedy comes along. Then, when it's time for someone else's fifteen minutes of fame, "sorrow" proves to be "last week's emotion" in the town of Devil's Kettle. The movie even delves into the strange myths that the media creates and perpetuates during such national tragedies."

    In this respect, I think that the film Cody is most trying to ape is HEATHERS albeit with a dash of IDLE HANDS. HEATHERS really went after the media's exploitation of such tragic events and how people get caught up in them. HEATHERS also had a wicked, satirical bent which JENNIFER'S BODY also attempts to replicate.

    I actually quite enjoyed this film and don't think that Cody or Megan Fox deserve the career moratorium so many critics seemed eager to write-up when this film came out. My only real problem with this film is the number of instantly dated pop culture references. I guess this will make the film a curious time capsule piece in 10 years time .

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Le0pard13 and J.D.

    Thank you for the comments. Le0 --you may find some points of interest in Jennifer's Body since you're raising a child too (and a girl to boot!)

    And J.D. I think you are absolutely right (and insightful) to think HEATHERS here. HEATHERS is a superior film; but in no way does Jennifer's Body deserve the derision that has been heaped upon it.

    Kathryn liked it even more than I did.

    best,
    JKM

    ReplyDelete