Bird Watching – In Defense of “Jennifer’s Body”
I get why Jennifer’s Body (2009), from screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama, wasn’t going to be loved by everyone. Probably the two genres that are the most subjective as far as whether they “work” for a viewer are horror and comedy, and a mash-up of those two things provides a wide scope of ways a movie might go wrong for someone. You’ve got to be Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to pull off something that’ll be nearly universally loved. I’m also aware that the stylized dialogue that many view as Cody’s signature grates on some—I fall into the camp of not always wanting movie characters to sound like real people, but it’s fine if you do. (Even though it still hurts me how much Allen disliked Juno…)
Still, despite understanding what might turn someone off from this film, I was surprised by how negative some of the reviews were when it came out. Here’s an example of one of the most extreme reactions—Stephanie Zacharek, at Salon: “…so contemptuous toward its own characters, and its audience, that it chokes off any visceral thrills it might have offered. The movie substitutes calculation for brains, and the filmmakers seem to think we’ll all be too stupid to notice. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a naked display of opportunism and exploitation at the movies — and when I use the word “exploitation,” I don’t mean the good, old-fashioned grindhouse kind, but the ‘Let’s make a buck by pretending to be transgressive’ kind, the kind that really makes you feel dirty.”
I get a film not working for you personally…but geez. I’ve seen plenty of horror films that revel in the kind of gross exploitation Zacharek seems to see in Jennifer’s Body (including one she gave an honorable mention to on her best of 2010 list, the contemptible Splice), and it just isn’t here. If Jennifer’s Body isn’t as cleverly subversive as I might have hoped, it does have moments that let that spirit in. It is solidly entertaining, with good performances from Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, and the supporting cast, and some admirably ruthless moments. I liked it then, and watching it again recently, I still liked it. Here’s why:
*I find the friendship at the core of the film quite believable, where many don’t. Jennifer and Needy (short for Anita, and yep, that’s overly clever—but as a writer myself I can’t express to you how tempting it is to come up with clever names for characters. If it wasn’t too crass for Dickens…) represent a kind of friendship that is very real, not just in teenage girl world, but in adult woman world, too. A lot of “good girls” love having that friend who will do the things she won’t, who will put herself out there and take that kind of “bad girl” risk. On the flip side, a bad girl needs an anchor to keep her from going too far (Needy makes a poor anchor here, of course). The extreme characterizations of this movie teendom also reflect what plenty of grown women still try to balance all the time. And, to any horror fans who don’t find the way Jennifer treats Needy believable: have you seen John Carpenter’s Halloween? This is basic.
*The film opens seriously, showing us how things will end up at the end of our events. Not a pretty picture, with Needy lashing out inside what appears to be a facility for criminally deranged women. So we know right off the bat that we’re not getting all fun and games. And wouldn’t that be a more realistic ending for a final girl who goes through what Needy does, rather than just waiting around for a sequel?
*Though a good amount of comedy does follow the brutal opening, I also like how the film plays it straight so often. It’s an odd tone sometimes, to be sure, but it’s fun to see some horror movie clichés taken seriously, such as just after Jennifer first disappears, when Needy is alone in her big dark house and goes investigating strange noises. Then, we’re waiting for Jennifer to show up…and when she does, it’s gruesome. Cody and Kusama could have played the scene as Jennifer just being mysteriously evil, post transformation-to-demon. Instead, we get her covered in blood, ready to devour. Great stuff.
*Ok, I said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Megan Fox is good in this movie.
*The careening craziness of some of the plot twists kept me engaged (fire! jock evisceration in woods! flashback to satanic ritual! girl-on-girl make-out session! conveniently timed school dance!). It’s a movie about a boy-eating cheerleader. Bring on the crazy.
*The end credits sequence: Needy’s revenge in Polaroids. Come on. That’s just fun.
In sum, I know this film isn’t a masterpiece, but I’ll never get the level of hate it faced. The good stuff outweighs the bad by a lot. Boy-eating cheerleader! I mean, really. That’s always gold.
That’ll be it for my horror-themed columns for awhile, since today is the last day of Women in Horror month. Next week: let’s get Criterion-y!