By Todd Gilchrist -- reprinted from TIFF 9/11/09
What is Jennifer's Body, and what is it supposed to be about? I don't know, and the film doesn't seem to, either: It's not really a horror movie, because those are usually scary. Nor is it smart or self-aware enough to be a treatise on teenage girls or male fears of female sexuality. And it's not even a swing-for-the-fences, spectacular enough failure to be a death knell or even deconstruction of the severely limited appeal of either its star, Megan Fox, or its screenwriter, Diablo Cody. Jennifer's Body substitutes hipster credibility for emotional currency, confuses pop-psychology insight with substantive social commentary, and measures terror on a scale that ranges from the word boo to a dead spider; in short, Jennifer's Body just does not work.
Fox plays Jennifer, a sexpot alpha female who mercilessly presides over the boys in her high school, but only has affection for her childhood friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried). After the two of them narrowly escape a fire while attending the concert of an up-and-coming band, Jennifer takes off to parts unknown in the lead singer's tour van, only to turn up later that night ravenously hungry in Needy's kitchen, covered in blood and God knows what else. It turns out that Jennifer has been mysteriously turned into a literal man-eater, and subsequently decides that her male classmates will serve as a more than suitable smorgasbord for her feasting pleasure. But when the homicidal homecoming queen decides that Needy's boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) is next on the menu, her mousy friend musters all of her own inner strength and decides to take Jennifer down a peg or two, even if it comes at the expense of their friendship, or even their lives.
Fans of horror will be immediately disappointed by its coy approach to either visceral or atmospheric scares; there's nothing in the film that more than momentarily shocks, the gore factor is minimal, and quite frankly the only thing resembling a "disturbing" sequence is the make out session between Fox and Seyfried, specifically because it comes out of nowhere and has no real purpose. But in general, there's just no strong throughline of action or emotion or anything else; it's as if just because there were enough moments of trailer-worthy cleverness that the rest was never fleshed out. Ok, so hell is a teenage girl. If you really envy somebody you're lime green jell-o. If you're amateurish or immature you're J.V. (as opposed to varsity). And Jennifer is evil, not just high school evil. But what happens in between these expository, pointedly hip or "deeply" metaphorical lines that is remotely compelling?
What's actually interesting is how all of the film's shortcomings seem to dovetail into one another, starting with Diablo Cody's script. Truth be told, I was sick of Cody's cooler-than-thou smarm before Juno had even reached its halfway point, but here she's empowered by the self-importance of her Oscar win, and indulges every pop-culture reduction she possibly can shoehorn into a given scene. In the same way that Tarantino has occasionally transformed his soapbox into superficial "characterizations," or Mamet's formalized gibberish has sometimes revealed a less than grandiose execution, Cody's verbiage serves as a stand-in for actual storytelling and character development; unlike her predecessors, however, that facility with language is the only talent she seems to possess, unless a false sense of superiority counts. The movie dotes on how clever it is without bothering to try and be smart, leaving its infinitely more interesting ideas stranded without more meaningful examination.
For example, is the film itself about the way in which the world (or even "the world") sees teenage girls, or is it about the way teenage girls feel about themselves? The monstrosity of female sexuality is hardly untraversed terrain for moviegoers, but I have no sense that the film actively takes a point of view about whether this is a satirical look at that perception, a reflexive metaphor for girls coming of age, or just a scary idea with no deeper thought attached. Is Jennifer content to be the big fish in a small pond, or is her interest in snaring a rock star tied to some deeper desperation to escape suburbia? She obviously understands the power she wields with her body (she calls her breasts "smart bombs – aim these things and sh*t gets real"), but are we supposed to think she's a victim when she's been carried off by a Satan-worshipping band looking for a virgin to sacrifice, or feel ambivalent that she willingly put herself in that situation?
While I believe Cody considered at least a few of these thoughts when she was writing the film, none of the details in each scene are focused enough to indicate actual decision making. But unfortunately, director Karyn Kusama doesn't quite know what to make of them either, and as a result the film never coheres into something believable, whether it's a fantasy world where girls can become flesh-eating monsters, or a "real" one where flesh-eating monsters would be regarded with an appropriate amount of incredulity, if not revulsion and horror. In the film's centerpiece sequence - the introduction of the band that unwittingly transforms Jennifer into said monster - there are so many different levels of reaction it's impossible for the audience to get any sense of what they should be feeling. Jennifer escapes burning to death, only to dazedly get into a van and drive off with the band; in the background, people are literally engulfed in flames, and Needy sits in the gravel parking lot, seeming both resourceful and totally helpless. Later, Jennifer visits her at her home, belching black syrup and screeching like a creature from hell; Needy not only accepts Jennifer's blood-and-God-knows-what-else-soaked appearance with a disturbing lack of concern, but cleans up her mess without telling anyone, or apparently talking to Jennifer for several days.
This of course contradicts both the poorly-explained psychic connection these two lifelong friends share, and the implicit daily interaction two best friends would have. But Cody's underdeveloped writing and Kusama's ambiguous direction are further stymied by Fox's own inconsistencies as an actress, and her own off-camera status as an A-list fetish object. While she sufficiently did what was expected of her in the Transformers movies, she hardly exceeded expectations, and did herself no favors by condescending to the franchise that made her a household name – especially since she's done nothing else thus far to justify the world's interest in her. But I think the bigger problem is that she courts the same perception of her that she despises; although under any and all circumstances her snogging session with Seyfried is hot, it feels insincere to tackle material like that when she's trying to be taken seriously – especially when it plays yet again into her status as fanboy catnip, which of course is her current (and for the foreseeable future) meal ticket as an actress.
Ultimately, it's impossible to think about this film without considering your personal feelings about at least two, if not all three of the women who are at the forefront of its creation. In the case of Jennifer's Body, there's just no such thing as coming into it fresh, uninitiated, or unbiased by your familiarity with their work, their public personas, or some combination of the two. Kusama, I believe, will be redeemed by this film, at least commercially; Aeon Flux was not her fault, and even as a bad action movie it was obviously guided to the screen by someone who cared about the material and wasn't phoning it in, no matter how the studio might have maligned that vision.
But while my most sincere hope is that she will get better material and make better movies from it in the future, I have no such sense of optimism for Fox or especially Cody, unless of course the two of them actually do something to deserve praise they've received. In the meantime, the movie is perhaps best looked at like one of the girls at the center of its story – namely, as something that seems intriguing, but doesn't know well enough what it is to convince anyone else that it's genuinely interesting. In other words, Jennifer's Body is a far more accurate representation of teenage females than it is an examination of them, while the experience of watching it is horrifying without managing to qualify as an actual horror movie.