Jennifer’s Body (2009): A Reconsideration

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The pitch is a dream for a post-modern, satire-loving, cinephile: the most popular girl at school gets possessed, turns into a succubus, and starts murdering boys, and it’s up to her best friend to stop her. It seemed like a collaboration that couldn’t lose. Diablo Cody, fresh off her acclaim for Juno, was to pen a dark comedy/horror film starring Megan Fox, America’s new sexpot. After serving as merely arm candy in Transformers, this would give Fox a chance to really vamp it up. Throw in a rock band fronted by Adam Brody who sell their souls to the devil. The failure of these items to come together in a coherent, smart way is borderline infuriating. I am actively angry that this film didn’t and coudn’t become a part of our teens-gone-bad lexicon.

As an aside, I am not sure the youth of today got the reference of the title; “Jennifer’s Body” is a lesser known track on the 1993 album Live Through This by Hole. This also shows that the film wasn’t intended for actual teens, which just throws another problem onto the pile of bad decisions this film made.

I hate to blame it on Diablo Cody, who has since produced some great work since this release, but no amount of slick direction could hide the languid story. It felt like a seed of an idea that was great, pitched, bought,  and then was written too hastily. (That, or written or re-written by the studio in multiple iterations).  The main problem with the screenplay was with the characters. Cody rose to acclaim because she wrote the world’s most quirky character in Juno, so perhaps she held back, which in this case, was a mistake. If this is a satire of high school, please, bring out the quirk.

Firstly, take Anita, nicknamed Needy, the timid, less adventurous friend of Jennifer. Needy, who we are told is pathetic, doesn’t really seem that pathetic. One, she’s the best friend of the most popular girl at school, and she has a pretty loving and adorable relationship with her boyfriend. (Not to imply that having a boyfriend builds up a character, but come on, in the world of high school, it does.) Needy is around to see and react to Jennifer’s evil, floundering with the knowledge that it is happening, but without action or dilemma. She doesn’t actually act on anything until the third act.

Then there’s Jennifer. Megan Fox is, undeniably, a freak of nature. The body, face and hair that her genetics gave her is the equivalent of the genetic jackpot. Whatever your level of attraction is to women, her sex appeal is unavoidable. Her near-perfect appearance makes her seem unreal, which sort of fits within the metaphor, but I am sure that is not what the director intended. Fox does her very best with what is given to her, which was probably “your character is bitchy and beautiful.” I know that it is hard to feel bad that Fox will likely always be cast as a bombshell, but she can be a more developed bombshell.

She can make a bitch face pretty well, and she uses that to her advantage. However, we only see Jennifer in isolation, with only a few clues to support she is popular. She’s a cheerleader and she wears sexy clothing. Her only friend is needy, she seems pretty vacant. What a great chance to mold her into the “mean girl” of the school, to surround her with loyal followers, but it seems that Jennifer and Needy exist within their own bubble, rarely interacting with other classmates except when Jennifer targets an innocent victim, begins to seduce them, but then unhinges her jaw to devour them, literally. Scenes inside the school mostly include extras milling around them, and only Jennifer’s victims are named, but die quite swiftly after that are introduced.

Perhaps Cody was going for some ironic metaphor for the evils of high school. In fact, one of the featured in the trailer was the line “Jennifer’s evil, not like high school evil, but evil evil.” It’s a clever line, and, in fact, would work as a tagline for the film. However, it seems the nugget of this great satirical idea is at odds with the actual script: high school is nothing but a backdrop, a location to be filmed. For teenagers, high school is most of their world, sets their society’s standards, and makes the rules of their world. A high school satire cannot work without a deeper dive into the high school world.

Origin stories are very tricky-although you wouldn’t think it, because the superhero/horror franchises can’t get enough of it. One thing I will give this film credit for is an imaginative origin for the supernatural element. Jennifer drags Needy to see a band she wants to fuck. The band, led by an eyeliner-applied Adam Brody, has struck a deal with the devil- if they sacrifice a virgin, they will get a hit record. (That would actually be a film I would prefer to watch.) Jennifer, ready to seduce the band, seems like the obvious virgin to them, although she is, ironically not a virgin, as told in some ham-fisted exposition when her older lover briefly approaches her at the bar.  

Just as the band takes Jennifer to the secluded woods to kill her, the club catches fire, violently killing everyone inside except for the band, Jennifer, and Needy, who escapes. People dying in a fiery crash is a big event, one would argue, the inciting incident, but holds no significance in the plot. It is merely mentioned in passing the next day. Perhaps it is a device used because we are to believe that Needy thinks that Jennifer perishes. It’s only for a few hours, because Jennifer appears in Needy’s kitchen, and vomits torrents of black liquid.

Jennifer eventually targets Needy’s boyfriend Neil after Needy takes his virginity because- why? Jealousy? Revenge on Needy, for what? We never knew any depth about Jennifer before she became an evil creature so there is nothing left for us to assume. Needy emerges in Jennifer’s bedroom to destroy her, but Jennifer eventually seduce her as well; a sensual kiss is shared among the two girls, which provided a lot of talk about this film.  I’d like to give the women who made this film more credit than to assume they put it in simply for the male gaze. It does, however,  makes sense that Needy as some sort of unresolved attraction to Jennifer. Her wanting to be her gets muddled with wanting her. Needy stabs Jennifer in the tit (“Ouch, my tit” is an actually line in the film), only to be caught by Jennifer’s parents, sending Needy to a mental institution.

Here we are, ten minutes to the end of the film, and it finally becomes something worth watching. Needy, now institutionalized, is a violent inmate who picks physical fights with other girls (perhaps her aggression has finally been released? who knows) and is forced into isolation in a cell. We see that she can hover in the air, a power she may have been transferred to her from Jennifer when she killed her. Is that something that happens with a succubus? It’s an hour 23rd element shoehorned in for an ending. We learn that Needy escapes the institution, tracks down Adam Brody’s band, and brutally murders them in their hotel room. The last shot of the film is a still shot of Needy glancing menacingly looking at the surveillance camera in the hotel. It’s a nicely done shot, which would have been interesting if it were the start of a new film. Needy gets her revenge on the band for what they did to Jennifer, but that’s closure to a minor part of the story. If this conclusion has us believe the film was all about tracking down the band, what was the 60 or so minutes in the middle about?

I did mention that this was a dark comedy, and it is billed so because Cody inserted some of those sharp zingers she did in Juno. “It smells like Thai food in here. Did you guys just have sex?”, “My hair is dry, my skin is terrible, I feel like you,” and the aforementioned “evil” line.

If not a veiled commentary on the nature of high school, what actually is Jennifer’s Body? It doesn’t have the feel of a true horror film. Was it offered to Megan Fox as a role to break free from the sexpot role that Michael Bay put her in? Was it Diablo Cody’s idea to begin with? It’s a film that is not only slow and unengaging, it doesn’t have a point of view, which is my biggest pet peeve as a film viewer. If we were supposed to love Jennifer in her evil actions, make us love her more. If we were supposed to fear her, make her scarier. If we were supposed to empathize with Needy, make her more pathetic. It’s literally a movie of half-assedness.

After a few years of distance, I decided to give it another chance. For some reason, time had faded my frustrations for the film. On my second viewing, I cut it more slack. It’s a film to put on in the background when you are cleaning, or one to watch when you are sick. Or, if anything, Megan Fox has never looked better, if you are into that.

By this time, Diablo Cody had won me over with Young Adult and United States of Tara, so I was much more on her side. Couple that with me belief that everything that happens in a movie, no matter how miniscule, is always there for a reason always means something. I’m a less fervent movie viewer than the critics in Room 237, but I still look for clues in films. Maybe Cody was trying to say something. Maybe she was saying something about the desire for women to exert their sexuality, but society’s strong shaming of this. Jennifer was overtly exploring her sexuality, but men were not ready to handle it (i.e., her “devouring boys”) and Needy was envious that society wasn’t letting her do that. A stretch, I know.

There could also be a Fight-Club-esque interpretation. Needy always wanted to be popular and sexual like Jennifer, and she was the one raped by the rock band. After that incident, her personality split into the two, with Jennifer standing in the for the Tyler Durden character (“I look how you want to look, I fuck how you want to fuck”) until Needy realizes she has to kill that part of herself, but is found out in the process, thus being institutionalized. It also could show the ptsd of being a victim of rape, and Needy creates the Jennifer persona to release her victimized rage, punishing “men” in general as her revenge.

These theory overlays don’t fix all the mistakes of Jennifer’s Body, but it gives it a new perspective, and adds it to the archive of women’s reaction to the society against them. It’s a movie that was quickly dismissed and quickly forgotten, and luckily didn’t put too much of an indent in Diablo Cody’s career. As great of a writer she is, she succeeds more with grounded characters in reality. Horror is not her forte. Although, I would kill to see a first draft of this script- maybe it was the movie that should have been made, prior to studio interference.

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