I hate-hate-hated Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body when it came out.
There’s nothing less interesting than a film critic writing about themselves and their experience with a given film, but I need to do so in order to illustrate something. I was a college freshman, having moved to Boston only a few weeks earlier, and was gorging myself on both dining-hall pizza and movies on Thursday nights down at the AMC Boston Common, which was only steps away from my dorm. It was 2009, a weirdly transitional year for everybody, it seemed — Michael Jackson had just passed away, and the pop world worked to fill the gaping hole in its chest, and Barack Obama had just become President, which overjoyed my peers and I but wrecked havoc on the psyches of plenty in this country. The recession was still wrecking people’s lives but it felt as if things were starting to slowly get better, and it was still a few years before the true spread of the social justice wildfire across the internet and into the overculture.
I don’t think I or the audience had any idea what the hell we were getting into and I just remember the silence at a packed screening. And I seethed with frustration after leaving the theater at how much I hated that movie. Megan Fox, the film’s ostensible star, was horrible, and Cody’s script was somehow even worse than the one she’d written for Jason Reitman’s Juno (a film I’d grown to hate because of how long it’d stuck at the single-screen movie theater where I worked at in high school, because no one saw it during the week and my shifts got cut).
At that time, I had no idea that movies couldn’t be for people other than me, an entitled white man who was still more kid than adult, and I reacted with the predictable stupidity of a frustrated 18 year-old: I think I tweeted about it. Still, in the intervening years, the film has become a cult classic and it’s easy to see why: It’s a rare film that speaks to the truths of teenager-hood and girlhood, and for a lot of people searching for representation on a screen larger than their own, it meant a great deal. I still think it’s a mixed bag of a movie, but it’s significantly better than I ever gave it credit for, and I encourage you to give it a second chance on February 17 when it shows at the Coolidge After Midnite as a part of their series on female genre filmmakers.
It’s difficult to overstate the omnipresence of the film’s two biggest personalities in popular culture at the time of its release. Fox was the sex symbol, adorning a million dorm room walls after her turns in Michael Bay’s first two Transformers outings, but was looking to move into other work. She had tried the year before to improve her status amongst the high-minded with a turn in Robert B. Weide’s How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, which flopped critically and commercially, and was looking for other projects that might cast her in a similar vein.
Cody, on the other hand, was a stripper-turned-author (remember back in the day when it was novel to the masses that sex workers could be intelligent, witty and capable of writing?) turned Oscar-winning screenwriter of a beloved teen comedy (despite it having a streak of social conservatism in it that would have been thought of as odd back when Fast Times hit screens in 1982) and showrunner of an acclaimed premium cable series. Even then, she was still a tastemaker, with a back-page column in Entertainment Weekly and a number of outlets willing to listen to her thoughts on 90210 and pop culture ephemera. So, they found the ideal partners in each other, and used their cachet to get this made.
To start, Jennifer’s Body is one hell of a title for a mass-market feminist film, and an interesting shot across the bow directly to the male audience, insisting *this* is the only thing you care about. It’s also a genre film about the horrors of being a teenage girl and the dissolution of the friendship between two young women, and it was a startling breath of fresh air (at least in concept) in comparison to what audiences had endured through the Bush years, with its trashy bread-and-circus entertainment and deeply mediocre wide-release horror. Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is a bit of a quiet and awkward hight school nerd, though she’s loved by her mother (Amy Sedaris, playing Jennifer Jason Leigh), her boyfriend (Johnny Simmons), and her best friend, Jennifer (Megan Fox).
Jennifer is a bit of a mean girl, or so it seems, and is constantly pulling Needy out of her comfort zone. So, one fateful night, Jennifer pushes Needy to go out to their small town’s only bar to see an band called Low Shoulder play a set (of course, Jennifer found them on Myspace). Creepy vibes abound, especially from the band’s lead singer (a deeply amusing Adam Brody) who talks about Jennifer’s virginity in pretty gross ways, but the two try to enjoy themselves. That is, until the bar burns down (and I’m sure it’s a bit uncomfortable for New England audiences, given how it seems to be modeled after and staged like the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island). The two escape with their lives, but Jennifer’s whisked away by Low Shoulder in their touring van, and she comes back changed. She displays a shocking lack of empathy for the fire’s victims, and begins acting out sexually in a way that disturbs the vaguely prudish (and by that, I mean “sexually healthy”) Needy. What Needy doesn’t know is that Jennifer’s possessed by a demon and feeding on men in order to sate its needs, and the two come into pretty heavy conflict.
Let’s just say that this one might be hit or miss for you, as Cody’s particular style is as divisive as it ever was. At this point in her career, Cody’d taken a buckshot approach to her writing: Some lines will hit, plenty won’t. For every killer line (one of Jennifer’s victims is described as a “lasagna with teeth”) and great set-piece (hammy Brody and his band of “indie” losers singing “857-6309” as they sacrifice Jennifer to Satan), there are as many worthy of groans and eye-rolls — the much-maligned “Hannah Montana” bit being one of plenty. Her invented bits and pieces of teen slang, sayings that never ever had a chance of catching on outside of her own universe, still aren’t great, and her preferred one in this film, “salty” meaning hot as fuck, will be sufficiently confusing to people younger than 21 who only know it as a synonym for bitter.
Yet her central conceit here — that C-minus Satanists fucked up a ritual by using a non-virgin, and unleashes a demonic version of her sexuality upon a small town — is humorous and unique, even if the conflict between Jennifer and Needy never amounts to much and actively groans under Cody’s odd structure. An exposition-heavy sequence in which Jennifer recounts every single event of the night of her “murder” loses its steam soon after it starts, and its drawn-out finale is an hurried awkward mess, full of wish fulfillment and easy satisfaction (though it boasts a fantastic cameo right at the end). This would be the last time Cody’d really try to write teenagers as her protagonists, and it makes sense why: Her teen-speak distracts from the meat of the film itself, and when it disappears the film becomes infinitely more watchable, even if it means missing out on a potential laugh.
Kusama (who just a few years ago directed the fantastic The Invitation), on the other hand, does a swell job of delivering Cody’s script to us word-by-word in a compelling fashion, though she’s a bit limited by the language of late-aughts studio horror: Overly set-dressed “creepy” locations, levitation as a compelling paranormal phenomenon, and a heavy reliance on mediocre CGI. But there are flashes of her later-totally apparent talent in the way that she frames certain scenes, like an audacious zoom on the face of a sad jock on the high school’s football field, or a split-screen shot involving Seyfried and Brody that feels positively pulpy, or our introduction to Jennifer in and of itself, in which Kusama emphasizes the physical flaws of her screen sex-idol lead.
Her cross-cutting between certain scenes, like in the contrasting ones between Needy and her boyfriend having consensual safe sex and Jennifer eating a goth, is ambitious if not entirely successful, as Needy’s happy place keeps us from getting to the good stuff. It’s her work with Fox and Seyfried that makes the entire film tick though, and kudos to her for having enough faith in Fox to carry herself through Cody’s tongue-twisters. She’s startlingly fierce and painfully human, especially in spite of the fact that the script gives her very little time to not be a bitch prior to her transformation, and gleefully demented when the moment calls for it. She contrasts well with Seyfried, even if she doesn’t totally land every single line as Ellen Page would have, and it’s a performance that really improves over time and in light of her later career. The both of them manage to pry the honesty from the artifice of their screenwriter’s world, even if they can’t work wonders all of the time.
Being a horror film about women written by the Juno lady and starring the chick from Transformers (or as the audience thought at the time) in September 2009, Jennifer’s Body flopped hard commercially, though it fared slightly better with critics, and it also had the misfortune of coming out during a transitional year for the horror genre. It hit screens only a week before Paranormal Activity came out and ensured that we’d be seeing found-footage horror grace screens every couple of months for the next few years, and two weeks before Zombieland cleaned up as well, with its more focused sense of humor and action-oriented horror.
And out of all the people in its ensemble, Chris Pratt (making a minor appearance here as one of Jennifer’s pre-possession conquests) would go on to have the biggest career, at least in terms of box office numbers. Fox wouldn’t do another Transformers film, though she wound up swapping Bay-produced franchises for a two-film stint as April O’Neil in the modern Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films before effectively finding herself frozen out of Hollywood (her only other upcoming project being, at the time, a James Franco-directed film, which who knows if it’ll ever see the light of day), though she has made more of a name for herself on television in recent months. Cody’s fared better over the years, writing the Charlize Theron black comedies Young Adult and the upcoming Tully, which premiered with good notices at Sundance this year, though she’s not nearly the same kind of presence that she was in pop culture that she once was.
All of that hasn’t stopped it from collecting a healthy cult-following, especially for women of a certain age and others who weren’t being served by horror films during their teen years. It has an odd time-capsule quality to it nowadays, as it occupies a certain moment of time and depicts it with the kind of present-minded aesthetic accuracy that few set-designers could ever hope of capturing in a period piece. You can see this reflected in Cody’s occasional tastelessness in her dialogue — “retard” is thrown around frequently, Pratt calls Low Shoulder “faygos” at one point, bulimia burns are a thing — which is fitting for a post-South Park breed of shock jock humor. The soundtrack is full of the emo and metal bands of the moment, and the Panic! At the Disco tie-in track, “New Perspective,” even had its own Fox-starring video filmed for it. But that’s not all.
Aside from the low-waist jeans and the flip phones and the Fall Out Boy posters that adorn the walls of our teenage protagonists, it’s just an embodiment of a specific period of American Adolescence that feels, if not totally genuine, true enough — much in the same way that classic ’80s slashers reflect their period well. It took years for this film to develop those flavors, and I can only imagine it growing stronger over the next decade as well. It will most definitely kill at midnights, too, especially with an audience who knows exactly what the fuck they’re getting into, and who are free and encouraged to laugh at the things that land and the things that don’t.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image via Moviestills DB.