Saturday, November 7, 2009

Smarmy Pin-Ups I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

One of my favorite things concerning directors with instantly recognizable style is the hope that they may one day take on genre films. Some of the most reputable horror films of our time were made by dramatic directors with names made for themselves in drama. The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Shining and Hour of the Wolf were all made by directors who had either already become some of the biggest names in the prestige/blockbuster game or were about to. On the other hand, so were The Doctor's Horrible Experiment, The Exorcist II: The Heretic, Twilight and today's film Jennifer's Body. I've long been looking forward to Jennifer's Body because I've been looking forward to sparring with writer/Ragged-Dick-stripper-It girl Diablo Cody on my home turf: The Horror Genre. And now that I've seen both her film and the litany of negative reviews that went with it, allow me to be the first (ok, at this point I'm very nearly the last) person to say I fucking told you so everyone on Planet Earth! For those who don't know, Diablo Cody wrote the screenplay for the Rushmore knock-off Juno and has since been all anyone can talk about. There's apparently been a backlash since Juno's universal seduction of the movie-going world, I thought I was the only one who despised the film's thrift store pretentiousness and close-minded view of humanity, but I guess I'm not alone. Yes, as it turns out, the only person still in love with Diablo Cody's writing is Cody herself, whose self-indulgent screenplay for Jennifer's Body actually stops the plot dead on several occasions to get a word in. Not often do you get to see a movie that actually stops and looks at itself in the mirror and invites you to do the same.

Jennifer's Body
by Karyn Kusama
We get introduced first to Needy Lesnicky (one of many Cody non-names), who in voice over explains away the dramatic high points of the film. We know that because she's in asylum, with a framed picture of her boyfriend nearby and because she's covered in scars, she's already defeated her opponent at the expense of her teenage companion. I'm not ruining anything, this is how it's set up. Not fifteen minutes in and we know how it ends. Anyway, Needy then explains how she ended up an orderly-kicking bad girl. She used to be best friends with best-friend-from-childhood Jennifer Check; Needy grew into a nerd, sort of, and Jennifer grew into Megan Fox from Transformers. I'll get to why that doesn't work in a minute. Jennifer steals Needy one night to go see a band called Low Shoulder, presumably because there's an absolutely meaningless sight-gag at the end of the film having to do with their name. Jennifer runs down the list of every guy in the bar she's fucked to naive Needy and then introduces herself to lead singer Nikolai Wolf. When Jennifer goes to buy her and the band a drink ("I'll just play Hello Titty with the bartender" explains Jennifer when asked how she'll skirt the issue of her being underaged), Needy overhears Nikolai and his bass player discussing whether or not the drooling fangirl is a virgin or not. Needy thinks they just want to get her into their rape van and do the obvious but when the venue burns down and they get her into the van, the circumstances seem much more sinister. Needy goes home, having just witnessed a bunch of people burned to death, and encounters Jennifer, who growls at her and eats most of a rotisserie chicken on the kitchen floor before vomiting black bile (in a classic bit of Ed Wood, Jr.-esque unfaithful narration, Needy will describe the liquid as a mixture of 'Roadkill and nails' to her boyfriend the next day).

Everyone's in shock over the death of their classmates at the bar, except Jennifer, who handles her grief by promising to fuck a football player who just lost his best friend, only to rip his guts out in the woods. People are sad, or so Needy tells us in voice over. To be honest it doesn't matter in the slightest. For some reason, a month goes by, and then a goth kid asks Jennifer out in front of Needy. Sensing that Needy likes the boy, Jennifer accepts his offer and gives him her address. He follows her directions and they lead him to a house under construction on a street with no lights on it whatsoever. Just guess what happens to him? Yeah, that's right. Anyway, Needy tells us that no one cares at school about the dead goth kid. Why that's important is anyone's guess. The formal dance is coming up, so to prepare, Needy goes to the school libraries occult section and learns about demons. I think maybe that's a joke but even so, it's not funny. If it's not a joke, let me just clear the air: there is never and will never be a book with specifics on demons waiting to be found at the library. That shit is in paperback and costs thirty dollars at the least, ok? They didn't start printing those exposition-pedias until after that cliche had found its way into every two-bit ghost story movie in some form or other. The answers are never just "at the library" so knock it off already. Anyway, Needy never says it, but she thinks Jennifer is a succubus; Low Shoulder thought she was a virgin, so when they sacrificed her to Satan the night of the fire in exchange for fame, she became something demonic. Needy's boyfriend, Chip (...?), doesn't believe her, and responds with equal dismay when she tells him to stay home from the formal so he won't be eaten alive. So you know he's going out and you know Jennifer's gonna find him and eat him. The only solution? Well, The World Book entry on Demons or whatever the hell told her to stab Jennifer in the heart, so why not give that a try?

Poor Karyn Kusama. You had everything going for you, and now here you are directing a vehicle for Diablo Cody's mouth and Megan Fox's tits. And I know that the latter was the bigger selling point to audiences because I was in a Multiplex in Boston on opening night (I didn't pay, but I was there all the same). The audience was 90% male and most couldn't keep from cat-calling and shouting lewd comments whenever Megan Fox appeared in anything other than full dress, often not even then. They were not there for the snappy, nonsensical dialogue; indeed most repeated it quizzically like it was another language. Hipsters and critics may have fallen in love with all the made-up slang (if I hear anyone use the word 'homeskillet' one more time....), but the rest of the world doesn't give a goddamn. So much for that screenwriting Oscar, eh? I find this gross for a number of reasons, but mostly because Kusama directed a great little film called Girlfight years ago with another Hollywood prisoner Michelle Rodriguez, whose best roles since have involved Paul W.S. Anderson and holographic little girls and her worst involve partying coeds and werewolves. Girlfight was a terrific, unassuming little movie with nothing to prove; Kusama could have done anything afterwards and knocked it out of the park, but Hollywood doesn't exactly roll out the red carpet for indie directors these days. Quite frankly she was lucky to find a project with such a high profile considering how easily she could have been relegated to forgettable thrillers or sex comedies (E. Elias Merhige, Roland Joffe and Nimrod Antal feel your pain...or anyway, they should). To say that the only reasons anyone is going to pay this film any mind is because Diablo Cody wrote it and Megan Fox almost gets naked in it should come as a relief to Kusama because soon, people will forget she had anything to do with it and she can make something as good as Girlfight again. She tries to breathe life into the script, but she's not a horror director and either can't or won't revel in violence, which the script is lousy with.

Before I run off into hyperbole, let me first say that I don't want to make a mountain of this. I hate this movie, to be sure, but it's no better or worse than Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus, which was released the same week as Jennifer's Body. There were bad films before Diablo Cody and there'll be plenty afterwards. I don't want to assign her with some legendary quality. She's simply a blogger moonlighting as a scriptwriter who happens to think everyone on earth talks like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock, and whose dialogue isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is. I don't really like Stephen King's writing either nor do I think he's done the field any harm by encouraging people to read shitty books. As long as they're reading, right? Juno I actually disliked more because everyone loved it so much; it wrapped up a pro-life message in cuteness to distract people from its spinelessness. I hated that film because it refused to play by its own snarky rules, and allowed a vicious piece of shit to not learn a thing and still come out on top (incidentally, the same could be said of the film's writer). It favored jarring style over substance, to the point that director Jason Reitman just threw out garish effects to see what would stick. The music borrowed so heavily from the Wes Anderson/Garden State model I could swear they were simply playing those films' respective soundtrack albums. The one original tack it had to offer was the screenplay, which I found infuriatingly inconsistent. In short, it's no shock at all that I disliked Jennifer's Body to the degree that I do.

The story makes little to no sense on a scene-by-scene basis; things happen because that’s what goes on in horror films…though largely that defense doesn’t even work. Cody is so intent on not playing by the rules, in fact she’s such a renegade that she doesn’t even play by her own rules. Here’s a smattering of questions I have for our auteur author: Why does Needy not have her glasses in the asylum? Why does Jennifer howl and vomit when she sees Needy for the first time after her sacrifice, when she clearly trusted her meek friend enough to go back to her house? Why does she never make that noise again? Why do Jennifer and Needy make out? Why isn't that explored in their back story? Why doesn't Needy's insecurity about her feelings for Jennifer come out in full? Is she a closeted lesbian or was this purely a marketing decision? Why is no mention of the incident made later? Why doesn't Jennifer, who is supposed to be the popular girl at school, not have any other friends but Needy? Where all the other cheerleaders she would actually be friends with in the real world? Why does Colin the goth kid ask Jennifer out? If he liked her, why didn't he mention it to Needy in their first dialogue together? No way in hell would he risk his goth friends finding out. Why does Jennifer only attack boys close to Needy? Why, if Needy understands Jennifer's plan, does she tell Chip to stay home from the formal? Wouldn't he be better protected under her watchful eye rather than at home, alone? Where is Jennifer's mother while she's off murdering boys in the middle of the night? Why does Jennifer wait a month between killing the football player and the goth kid? Why does Chip, who is one of Jennifer's strongest opponents, believe every word of Jennifer's lies later in the film if he's so in love with Needy? Why does Jennifer decide to float when she does? If she can float, surely she can do other demonic things that would render Needy harmless, right? What does the BFF necklace that both girls wear take away Jennifer's ability to fly? Why, if she is going to the formal dance simply to look out for Jennifer, does Needy dress up beforehand? How does Needy explain the broken windshield of her mother's car to her mother after Jennifer smashes it? Is there anyone on the planet who still refers to whatever major metropolitan area is nearest as 'the City'? Why, when her boyfriend is dying from an open neckwound, does Needy find it necessary to confront Jennifer with a couple of bitchy insults? Does she think a demon is going to respond to insults aimed at the girl whose body it happens to be inhabiting (this is the scene I was talking about in the introduction. Cody flat out stops the action so that the two girls can trade insults for up to a minute. Cody's message seems to be that whatever dramatic thing is going on can wait so she can make sure we know how many ridiculous synonyms for 'bitch' she came up with)? Why does Jennifer (who was just FLOATING a couple of goddamn seconds ago) not simply turn her to Demonic pudding instead of answering back with empty threats? Why for that matter does a demon insist on speaking like a pantomime of the vacuous teenager whose body it inhabits? Why does demon Jennifer outline the attack to a human who she'll later try and kill? Does she have a sex drive anymore? She doesn't actually have sex with anyone, she just eats people, so why the bait-and-switch seduction scenes? On what planet is (as Jennifer puts it) 'fucking a recruit' the same as 'having the police in your back pocket'? Who thought Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox could pass for high school students? Johnny Simmons, who plays Chip looks like he's 13, whereas Fox and Seyfried look conspicuously like a couple of twenty-five year old actresses. This is most jarring when Seyfriend and Simmons have to have sex midway through the movie. It's borderline creepy. Also, I know too many girls who start stories with 'we used to be friends before she decided to be popular' for me to believe for a second that Needy and Jennifer would still be friends, let alone best friends. They might pass each other and smile occasionally, but there's no way, especially considering that the two girl have nothing in common, that they'd remain best friends while Jennifer is being gangbanged by mouthbreathing horndogs and Needy is studying and trying to spend quality time with her nerdy boyfriend. I went to high school, I know how these things work. Cody wants us to both accept that this is high school, so things are different, but also forget we ever went to high school and understand how shit actually works. Even Rob Zombie gets how to write convincing foul-mouthed teenage girls yet Cody remains oblivious.

The final point I want to bring up is the film's message, if it can be said to have one. Kusama and Cody both draw attention to the surface differences between Seyfried and Jennifer. In the script, Needy is apparently written as someone ugly and introverted. That doesn't work, because she also has more friends than Jennifer, not to mention a boyfriend. So while Cody's characterization backs itself into a corner, Kusama's choice to play Seyfried against Fox is similarly damning. Jennifer's Body is one of a long line of movies whose idea of ugly stems from having glasses and a look that might courteously be described as frumpy. Seyfried is no less attractive than Olivia Thirlby's sidekick in Juno and is given the exact same kind of look except that her glasses are just slightly rounder. So Kusama is basically asking everyone to accept that because Megan Fox is her counterpoint, anyone could be in the Needy role and still pale in comparison. That doesn't work for me because I find Megan Fox pretty profoundly unattractive. I'm not every guy on the planet but the horror of the story derives from the notion that men will do anything for a hot person; Jennifer falls for the lead singer of Low Shoulder, guys fall for Jennifer. I'm amazed that that still qualifies as enough to base a movie around. Here's why that doesn't work: all the girls I know who act like Megan Fox and who also look like her…no one likes them. They get bad-mouthed at parties and date surrogate fathers, and even that characterization, I recognize, is far too broad to be true. You can no longer get away with making movies about the pitfalls of attractive people because there's no such thing as a blanketly (un)attractive person. I'll use myself as an example. I'm not particularly good-looking; on a good day I look like Wilbur Whately the Goatman from H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, what with my enormous head and patchy facial hair. As I walk the streets my visage sends peasants running for the sanctity of holy places where they beg for absolution. Whenever I arrive somewhere new, rumours of the goatman who haunts Cambridge cinematheques have preceded me and I have to wear a cloak in polite company, like when I purchase fatback and the lesser works of Krzysztof Kieslowki at the larder, so as to avoid a scene. Yet, I've had girlfriends, one of the only aspects of my life I ever feel good bragging about. If I was stupid and a massive cunt, like Jennifer, I wouldn't have friends at all, let alone good friends. And, predictably, just like Juno, Jennifer never changes, she just gets PG-13 naked and violent (the film is nothing like as violent or excessive as it should be, yet is still reprehensible and vulgar). People are not defined by their looks anymore, and while half of the film seems to get that, the half that gives Needy an understanding if horny boyfriend, the other half, the one that obeys genre conventions and stops the film midstream to elaborately call its villain a whore, something the audience already knows, doesn't. The mystery quickly shifts from wondering what's happened to Jennifer to why we should care about her in the first place.

So, I hate this movie because it tells us to obey playground rules just like it does. Did I hate everything? No. I like Amy Sedaris and J.K. Simmons, but they're wasted in bit parts. But what I really like is Adam Brody as Nikolai, the band leader, a Ray Lovelock character he embodies with effortless greasy charisma. Brody has a great, leering charm and delivers lines "I wanna go someplace familiar - my van" with a slick confidence, both free and full of knowing irony, that I haven't heard in a while. It's also nice to see someone from a beloved staple of mainstream teenage culture (The O.C.) stabbing people to death and snorting coke in a hotel room. The only thing in this movie with the guts to be as sleazy as it should, Brody's a spot-on transplant from 70s exploitation films, which makes the wretchedness of everything around him all the more apparent.

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