Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Jennifer's Body" Review

I could give just about any opinion on "Jennifer's Body" and it would make a pretty good pun, but I'll try to resist. Instead, it's fair to begin by saying my expectations for the film were easily exceeded, in that it is, in fact, a competently executed and arranged sequence of images. Still, that's about as far as my praise will carry it, with its patchwork of languid, derivative scares and generally unconvincing attempts at humor.

The film, directed by Karen Kusama, who's fast making estrogen her calling card with a body of work that includes "Girlfight," "Aeon Flux," and an episode of "The L Word," never quite succeeds for a couple of reasons, but little of which Kusama can directly be said to be at fault for. The problems, admittedly, start with 'Diablo' and end in 'Cody.'

It's not that I'm one of the Oscar-winning screenwriter's snide detractors, still saddling a grudge from the "Juno" days. I liked "Juno." But "Juno" was indie, and hoo boy did it know it was indie. It was so indie some more cynical critics choked on it. "Jennifer's Body," however, dabbles dangerously in camp, which can be a particularly wily beast to tame. Everything Cody attempts in her screenplay was more successfully achieved in Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell," Brian De Palma's "Carrie," and John Fawcett's "Ginger Snaps" while I'm at it.

The issue of its target audience is a curious one, as the themes Cody tackles and the ages of the entire principal cast firmly suggest high-school, but the R-rating indicates otherwise. Curiously though, "Jennifer's Body" isn't a hard R, with minimal conventional gore, some swearing, and no nudity to speak of. Everything about the film screams PG-13, and with so little seemingly standing in the way of that rating, it's peculiar that this was the cut released. Even on the verge of Halloween season, the film will likely struggle to find an audience.

The precedent set by recent horror/comedy hybrids like "Gindhouse" or "Drag Me to Hell" also points to public apathy for Kusama's latest, but in this case they really aren't missing much. Megan Fox ("Transformers") stars as Jennifer Check, who drags her BFF, "Needy Lesnicky" (Charles Dickens Cody ain't), portrayed by "Big Love's" Amanda Seyfried, to a bar where the two catch the attention of an evil indie band that, mistaking them for virgins, abduct Jennifer as sacrifice in their satanic ritual for superstardom.

The ritual, revealed in flashback later on, makes for undoubtedly the film's funniest sequence. The tone is dark and pitch-perfect as the band members squabble over trivialities while preparing her last rites. It's a tone that's conspicuously and unfortunately absent in the rest of the script. Regardless, because Jennifer is "not even a back-door virgin," the sacrifice goes awry, transforming the high-school hottie into a bloodthirsty succubus.

Campy one-liners are about the extent of the rest of the movie's humor, which is never exactly groundbreaking stuff, and when combined with the ho-hum horror, make "Jennifer's Body" a thoroughly acceptable film that does nothing particularly well. Kusama's direction is solid and the performances of her cast are impressive for a group of up-and-comers, especially Johnny Simmons (no relation to J.K., who also stars) as Needy's boyfriend, Chip. Regrettably, their work is undermined by Diablo Cody's ultimately uninteresting story.

Cody's pop-culture tentacles flail in every direction, but the failure of her script is in its aggressive precociousness and lack of commitment to either wood grain horror or outright parody. Effective campy horror is a tightrope to be sure, one that neither the writer nor the director is quite capable of crossing. Their film is a mishmash of insubstantial storytelling and unimpressive showmanship that doesn't quite know who it's talking to.

Some may find it attractive, but as far as I'm concerned, "Jennifer's Body" is a bit too thin.


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