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Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Take a non-stop teenage romance/ and turn it all into lust": More thoughts on Jennifer's Body

Title quote courtesy of the classic Agent Orange song about the impossibility of separating love from lust.

So I do have more thoughts on Jennifer's Body. It isn't a good movie, nor is it a "so bad it's good" movie like The Apple or The Wicker Man remake. But it is a good movie to write about. In part, that's because Cody's script throws out so many ideas and never really does anything with any of them. It's all zeitgeist, very little substance. It definitely feels like a very very early screenplay pushed into production without very much production.

And the film's main concept is a good one and the one that gets the most development (while botching the execution). Discovering and expressing one's sexual identity as a teenager often feels simultaneously invigorating and dangerous. To elevate it to a state of literal death and damnation is pretty clever.

Needless to say, other films have played with this before, Ginger Snaps standing as the most thoughtful version. But it is still less common than the "have sex, get murdered by a serial killer" approach of most slasher films.

But Cody can't accept that as her sole subject. Or, at the very least, she can't unify the other elements around this subject. Instead, she's got to touch on cliques, small town life, absentee parents, the homosocial elements of close same-sex friendships and a couple other things.

And she's certainly not aided by a cast that either acts as if they are reading the script off of cue cards or trying to hide the blatant artificiality of dialogue.

Fox turns in probably the worst performance of the cast. Theoretically, this should be a dream role for her. She's playing a sex object who uses her beauty to rule what even she knows is a very circumscribed territory and who already fears that she's peaked. She's been granted an amazing amount of privilege that puts her above normal morality, but it's all dependent on the temporal nature of human beauty. She just needs to deliver her lines in a believable manner and show a moment or two of vulnerability, and she can just look pretty the entire rest of the film.

The problem is that Fox can't do the first of those two things expected of her. All her lines are delivered with the exact same intonation, as if she memorized them phonetically and is just reciting them in her breathy, "sexy" voice". It might have been possible to sell the stylized speaking style as that of a pretty, pretentious girl who no one is willing to tell that she is not as clever as she thinks. But there's no thought process going on for why she says these things.

Because of this, her most effective moments are the silent ones, like a beautiful shot of her swimming naked in a lake, ascending the ladder with supreme self-confidence, the water steaming from her diabolically warmed body. Her pride at her beauty and satisfaction that this can last forever are filled in by her posture and blase expression.*

But if Fox fails the script, so does pretty much everyone else. Adam Brody as a satanically aided lead singer does seem to get that everyone in the Cody-verse is just really clever and this is how they talk. My favorite sequence in the film is when he and his bandmates are about to sacrifice Jennifer to Satan (in order to get a real career)** and he goes from threatening to assured to cajoling in a matter of moments all to keep the sacrifice moving. Towards the very end, he starts singing Tommy Tutone's "867-5309 (Jenny)" as if this was just some late-night karaoke lark before viciously stabbing Fox to death. For a second, the mix of dark wit and horror take you somewhere unexpected. But it's just another momentary diversion in a film filled with too many of them already.

*The funny thing is that Marilyn Chambers, whose acting ability seems at least as limited as Fox's, turned in an extraordinarily more complex performance in a similar role in Rabid. And while Cronenberg's script is not as self-conscious or stylized as Cody's, he hardly gives Chambers the depth that Cody attempts to invest in Fox's character. Perhaps all that I need to add is that the director for JB also directed the live-action Aeon Flux. So the director might be yet another weak link. Maybe the surprise is how a film with a flawed script, a mediocre director and bad cast does manage to hit a nerve even a couple times.
** One of the best running gags is how the band's national success increases with every tragedy that strikes the town, when their Fall-Out-Boy-meets-the-Killers hit single gets co-opted as the soundtrack to the town's suffering, to the point that the song title is the theme for the high school dance.