[7 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Diablo Cody is rapidly becoming a one note joke in the eyes of many film fans. Forget the Oscar, the split personality Showtime series (United State of Tara, for those who don’t know), and the recent big screen debacle of Jennifer’s Body. This is one writer who is manipulating her muse in such a deliberate, limited way that all Jason Reitman infused Juno joy aside, she’s dangerously close to becoming a parody of herself. One need look no further than the aforementioned Megan Fox vehicle (new to Blu-ray) to see the signs of potential self-spoof, as well as what might be her ultimate saving grace.
Granted, many of the problems facing this uneven genre romp come directly from the frequently aggravating ironic-ditz speak substituting for meaningful dialogue crafted by Ms. Thang Cody. The storyline centers on the title character, the local hot chick in a one horse town. Her best friend is uber-nerd Needy, and together they are the yin and yang of high school clique chic. While Jennifer enjoys being the cock-tease titan, her shy if still socially acceptable pal hangs out with sensitive band boy toy Chip. One night, the gals attend a concert by a lame act named Low Shoulder. One onstage mishaps and raging inferno later, and Jennifer is MIA and Needy’s entire world is shaken to the core.
At this point, Cody and director Karyn Kusama go all proto-feminist Heathers by way of a horror film on the material. Turns out, Jennifer was “sacrificed” as part of sloppy Satanic ritual, is turned into a literal version of her ‘mankiller’ self, and makes her best friend’s life even more miserable. As for Needy, well, she doesn’t have much to do except fret and find a way to turn into a last act action hero - otherwise, the plot would go nowhere. That’s one of the many issues with this often intriguing film. Just when we think we ‘get’ where Cody and Kusama are taking us, they thwart expectations and cinematic standards…but not always in a good way. In fact, there are more than a few fumbles along the way.
As the new Blu-ray explains, studio mandates required Kusama to switch around scenes, cut dialogue, change onscreen “kills” to offscreen shadows, and (according to the illuminating if often dull commentary track), alter the vision of the film. Luckily, the updated format offers her a chance to present an Unrated cut of Jennifer’s Body which comes closer to the actual intent originally and one has to say, it becomes a much better experience. More cohesive. More clever. More tolerable. In the industry’s mad rush to get to sex mannequin Megan Fox’s barely polished performance, a lot of the contextual foundation of the film is lost. At least on the digital domain, many such shaky decisions can be aired out and contrasted - and this is one case where the comparison favors the filmmaker.
Elsewhere, Cody’s contempt for the Queen’s conversation fodder continues almost unabated. Indeed, as critics often complain, the characters in Jennifer’s Body speak like someone is writing their dialogue for them. It’s not natural and frequently sounds so phony that the late great Holden Caufield would rise from the grave to get some major zombie English Lit revenge on the fakeness. It just reeks of someone who’s spent way too much time developing cloyingly cute ADD-brevations for everything from envy (“lime green Jell-O”) to breasts (“smart bombs”). In Juno, this approach worked because Cody wasn’t really trying to make a true teen pregnancy dramedy. Instead, director Jason Reitman manufactured a post-modern fairy tale, and the stylized presentation matched the mangled language perfectly.
But Jennifer’s Body goes overboard with the lingo. Since she’s working in a standard filmic archetype - the ‘80s teen fright flick - it’s hard to remove those inferred conventions from the situation. Therefore, whenever one of Cody’s conversational co-conspirators breaks out with the nutty Naughts version of the Dead End Kids, we cringe just a little bit. Like the sour smell still wafting over from a now abandoned abattoir, we get used to it after a while. But as many writers will tell you, editorial perspective is almost impossible when you are acting as your own red pen reviser. Clearly, Ms. Cody and her Oscar believe they are above reproach, and that’s a shame. She’s got the sensibility down pat. It’s the palaver that suffers.
Similarly, Ms. Kusama can’t be let completely off the hook. She’s labors under the delusion that, somehow, a single independent motion picture anomaly (Girlfight) allows her to indulge in some senseless filmmaking flourish - even if the failed follow-up (a live action adaptation of MTV’s Æon Flux) proved how limited her range might actually be. Sure, we enjoy the finale set in an abandoned and overly atmospheric public pool, but then Kusama makes little use of its many fun/fear possibilities. Elsewhere, set-pieces like Jennifer’s “sacrifice” and the opening bar fire are entirely too self-conscious. Instead of being staged like reality captured in a compelling manner, Kusama goes for the arty. It doesn’t always work.
Yet thanks to the compelling presence of Amanda Seyfried and the “doesn’t muck it up” abilities of Ms. Megan, Jennifer’s Body is curious. It’s not always entertaining or honest with what it wants to accomplish, but it is definitely not the out and out bomb that some would convince you it is. Granted, if you’ve ever spent time listening to clueless 12 year old girls chatter incessantly about some crappy pop culture phenom, you’ve more or less experienced this film. Cody clearly believes she is manufacturing a new lexicon for the text messaging crowd, the “BFF/OMG/TMI” version of intimate personal one-on-one. Instead, she overdoses on it, turning off many who might otherwise enjoy her frequently keen observations of 21st century adolescence.
And it is here where Diablo Cody might be able to save herself. You see, few writers want to tackle the often tough issues of modern youth. Many want to go for nostalgia (Adventureland), an older demo ( (500) Days of Summer) or the pointless and nonsensical (far too many to name). But movies like Juno or Jennifer’s Body dive right into the au currant fray, finding truth among all the high tech/lo-fi inconsistencies of today’s addies. Perhaps if she works with a better brand of filmmaker, someone less enamored of her trophy wall and more focused on what she has to say, she’ll find a way out of the whip-smart-smarm universe. Until then, we have to suffer through what Jennifer’s Body is, and only imagine what it might have been. As it stands, it only marginally succeeds.