The Film: Jennifer’s Body (2009)
The Principles: Karyn Kusama (Director). Diablo Cody (Writer). Megan Fox. Amanda Seyfried. Johnny Simmons. Adam Brody. J.K. Simmons
The Premise: After a shitty band tries to offer her as a virgin sacrifice to Satan in exchange for fortune and fame, Jennifer Check (Fox) – who, as it turns out, wasn’t a virgin after all – is inhabited by a demon and turned into a murderous succubus.
Is It Good: It is, but that answer’s gonna change depending on who you ask – understandably so, to a degree. To a degree because there’s a lot of inherent misogynistic backlash surrounding anything that has Cody’s or Fox’s names on it, but we’re going to just ignore all that for a moment and focus on stuff that isn’t hateful douchebaggery.
So perhaps “good” is kind of an arbitrary thing – because there’s plenty to legitimately criticize – but what seems to be inarguable is that it’s ambitious. Starting at the script level, Cody’s doing a lot of things that don’t necessarily jive with what we’ve come to expect from a horror movie and, given what she’s all about, those things begin and end with the way she writes her female characters. And sure she peppers it with her “trademarked” teenager slang, but there’s a veritable wealth of emotional, pubescent allegory happening just underneath the surface (there always is, though, which is why trademarked is in quotes because it’s almost offensively dismissive to focus on that aspect of Cody’s writing without considering the larger role it plays in the way she creates/relates her characters). That, of course, is a great and wonderful thing – but where the ambition threatens to undermine the entire thing is that she’s operating from multiple points of view. There’s so much thought given to Jennifer as a character and the real-world dynamics facing a real-world parallel to that character, but just as much thought is given to Needy’s character and – on top of that – there’s just as much thought given to the dynamics of their friendlationship (makin’ up words, y’all) and the ins and outs of it from both sides. And because she’s a writer who is sharp and is able to consider a million different things at once, there’s also little nods and gestures here and there in service to commentary on certain cultural things like the media’s reaction to tragedy and how fame isn’t something that has to be earned any more.
It sounds like a lot because it is, and that’s sort of problematic; she’s operating on so many levels that it’s easy to lose sight of it all as an audience because it does dip into moments where it’s trying to be too many things at once. So when the story stumbles and suffers (because it does), people who aren’t necessarily paying attention to what’s being attempted aren’t going to find a whole lot to cling to and, as such, negative opinion.
And that’s just the script!
There’s also a certain amount of subversiveness on display in casting Fox as the lead because she’s simultaneously playing to and against the sort of typecasting that a lot of dudes love to project on her (sigh). There are so many setups and little character moments in her story that would have slipped right into exploitation and objectification in the hands of someone who didn’t know how to handle a character like that (and other, more vulnerable moments that would have been incredibly awkward had the other stuff not been handled like it was). And that’s as much to Kusama’s credit as anyone’s; I dunno if Cody wrote the role specifically for Fox, but whomever made that decision to cast her knew exactly what they were doing. And Kusama courts it – she knows how to walk that tantalizing line between acknowledging (and even playing up) Fox’s inherent sexiness without ever tipping her hand and turning Jennifer into the sexual object that people wanted/expected. The little peeks, the little teases – and the way they were all constructed as segues to more genuine character stuff – it all feels like a very well-orchestrated “fuck you” to people who only showed up for the one thing. And the way Fox completely gets what Cody and Kusama are going for and nails it practically every step of the way does a lot to bring a talent to light that the other roles I’ve seen her in have never bothered to explore. It feels condescending to say it “legitimizes” her as an actress but in a perfect world it would do a lot to dispel certain attitudes or misconceptions about who she may or may not be as an actress. But again – that’s only going to apply to someone who’s actually paying attention and not just, ya know, staring at her tits (which is all Michael Bay obviously ever expected anyone to do).
And I know it seems like I’m veering really close to oh-so-smug “you just don’t get it” territory, but more than anything this is a movie where you’re only going to get out of it what you put into it.
Is It Worth A Look: Definitely. The whole does end up being just a touch less than the sum of its parts, but even on the surface it’s fun and Kusama turns in great work, not only in service of Cody’s script but also of fun, stylish filmmaking. The performances are delightful across the board and even when the story does stumble it never loses its spirit or its playful tone. Like I said above, there’s plenty to legitimately criticize, but none of it should stand in the way of having a good time with this.
Random Anecdotes: Well, these are really random, but… 1) My ex-wife’s name is Jennifer so there’s always been a certain amount of self-consciousness that came with even mentioning the name of the movie, even moreso once I saw it and started talking about it on Facebook. 2) I picked this up sight-unseen for $4 at a Black Friday deal; I figured even if it sucked I was enough of a fan of Diablo Cody’s that it was worth it. So hi-five for being pleasantly surprised. 3) I can’t tell if 20th Century Fox really got what Cody and Kusama were trying to do or not. I’m mainly speaking to this poster, which makes an equally compelling case for either. What do you guys think?
Cinematc Soulmates: The Slumber Party Massacre. Ginger Snaps. May.