Bad Example: Jennifer’s Body

by Jay Stringer

I’m confused about this film. And to be honest I think the film is confused about itself. It never settles onto what exactly it’s supposed to be.

A naked Megan Fox is not enough to make a good film.

Okay, I’m pretty sure that a naked Megan Fox is not enough. But let me think about that one.

Often you’ll see me complaining about a film’s writing, but this is an example of a film whose flaws are harder to pin down. If I write a story and it has poor structure or an inconsistent tone, then it’s clearly a failure of my writing. But in a film, responsibility for these things is shared out between the writer, director and editor. It can be hard to see where the problems stem from.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody seems very clear on the point of her script, describing it as a “morality tale” and being about “the pressures on women.” So maybe the fault lies elsewhere. Certainly, she does get in some very good satire, but first I’ll take a look at what I think didn’t work.

I mentioned Tone a little earlier. Tone in a horror film is very difficult to nail down, and it gets harder in a film that’s also a comedy. Films like SHAUN OF THE DEAD andAMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON manage a bit of both. They realize that real horror is to have bad things happen to decent people for no reason. The real horror inAMERICAN WEREWOLF is not the many nameless people who get mauled; it’s the fact that David is doomed. In the original RING films you’re condemned for the simple act of watching a video, and the only way out is to condemn someone else to your fate. If you’re going to wander into the territory of making your horror film into a morality play, which mainstream cinema often does, you really take away the horror. JENNIFER’S BODY never follows through on being all that funny, and loses its horror because of the morality element. Even then, if it is indeed a morality play, as Cody said, then it’s very confused as to its morality.

Jennifer’s transformation is the result of being sacrificed to the devil by an indie-band. They needed to find a virgin and decided the best way to find one was to walk into a bar and pick Megan Fox, who was openly talking about sexual encounters she’d had. Despite having one of the most flawed plans in recent cinema history, it is still somehow a surprise to these people when the plan goes wrong later in the film. But what is the moral here?  Is the film attacking pre-marital sex? That would seem a very old fashioned and judgemental message.

And as for the film’s exploration of the “pressures on women,” well that’s going to be harder for me to judge. What with not being a woman. It seems to come at the issue from a few different perspectives, Needy, the bookish best friend, is unsure of herself and lets her identity be defined by others until the end of the film. Jennifer seems a different animal. She feels strong, talking about how her breasts give her power and trying to dominate everybody. At the same time she is objectified and exploited by the musicians. She attempts to use her sexuality to get what she wants. So is the film criticising this or defending it? Or is it presenting both sides for the viewer to make up their own minds? I’d like to think it’s that last option.

Before we’re given a chance to decide whether we like Jennifer or not, she changes into a demon.  So if we’re unsure over whether to root for Jennifer we need to either love or hate her victims to have a stake in what unfolds, but the film doesn’t seem to know which. Her victims are generally lonely or upset adolescent males. They haven’t crossed any moral line other than indulging in sex before marriage, but we also don’t know them well enough to care about what happens. The one casualty we really care about is Chip, Needy’s boyfriend. Throughout the film he is shown to be sweet, caring and realistic. Again the only moral he really transgresses to deserve death is sex before marriage, which would make me wonder if this is really a very pious and old fashioned film dressed up in hip clothes. The problem is that Needy also indulges in pre-marital sex, and she not only survives the film but also gains super powers. So is it okay if you’re a girl?

(Saying that, Chip does call Phil Collins ‘seminal,’ so maybe he did deserve to die after all.)

For me the writing is a little too heavy handed. The first line is, “hell is a teenaged girl,” which is followed up shortly after with “as normal as any girl under the influence of teenaged hormones.” Okay, we get it. It’s not nice being a teenaged girl. I prefer to be shown rather than told. We are a pretty savvy audience; we can pick up on things through subtlety and craft.

The friendship between the two leads is another example of this, straight off the bat we are told that people find it difficult to believe they are friends. This feels like the script taking a short cut, it’s very self conscious of the fact that the relationship feels wrong, and decides to tell us it works instead of finding a way to show us. And is it really necessary to name the neurotic heroine Needy?

Everything follows on from the tragedy at Melody Lane, a fire that kills almost everybody attending the gig. Why does this happen? It provides the catalyst for the Bands rise to stardom, yet happens before they sacrifice Jennifer. So what starts the fire and why? The way Adam Brody’s bandleader laughs at the wreckage suggests they’re already signed up to the hellfire club, but if that’s the case why the need to sacrifice Jennifer? And what follows afterwards doesn’t feel true. It’s a good chance for some wicked dialogue from Brody but, as an awful tragedy unfolds in the background, Jennifer jumps into a van with some strange boys and leaves her best friend stood outside a burning building. It happens because the plot needs it to happen, but the whole scene feels forced. Although at this point I’m sure we can all agree on one aspect of morality; jumping into a van with a satanic indie-band is not going to lead anywhere good.

The film also takes too many liberties with our suspension of disbeleif. To have crazy stuff happeoning in a story, you need to have earned it by proving a firm grasp on reality. I always remember one of the Crow sequels, when the hero drives a motorbike through concrete. Now, I’ve never met a man who has been sent back from the dead by a crow to resolve his troubles, so i can accept that for the sake of a story. But i do know concrete, motorcycles and the human body, and they just don’t mix. Simmilar things happen in JENNIFER’S BODY. I’ve never met an evil succubus demon, so i’ll suspend my disbeleif to make the story work. But i’m reasonably sure the local school library wouldn’t have a book that explains exactley what Jennifer has become and how to kill her, and i’m certain that a packing knife can’t be used to pierce someones breastplate and stab them throught the heart.

The frustrating thing is that between these forced moments are some very interesting ideas. The film takes a very well thought out swipe at the media, and at the way victims are exploited. The tragedy at the start of the film is used to sell records and generate a news cycle, the way the media circles liked vultures around the towns grief really hits home. There are strong performances from the cast; Fox does well with a thin role and both Amanda Seyfried and Johnny Simmons fill their parts with warmth and humour. Adam Brody is a lot of fun as the bad guy, playing it with just the right amount of Yuppie smarm. The film also plays by the J.K.Simmons rule; put J.K in a film and he will be the best thing in it.

Technically the direction from Karyn Kusama is steady and confident. She handles the few action scenes very well and manages to throw in a few genuine jumps for the audience. But there is an overall lack of cohesion,  with two or three different voices fighting with each other for prominence. One is a dark and witty attack on genre and gender conventions, which is at odds with the conservative morality that runs throughout the story. The third, and the one I wish had won out, was the cynical exploration of the media.

This lack of focus drags the film down. It’s a morality play that doesn’t have a clear grip on any one moral stance, or it’s an exploration of female adolescence that loses its way. Ultimately it could be said to be Needy’s story; she starts the film as an uncomfortable girl and ends it as an empowered woman. If we can agree that ‘empowered’ means committed to a lunatic asylum, with super powers and a homicidal rage.

What would I take from this? The same message that came out of last weeks article; know what story you are trying to tell. If you have to have a message –and you don’t have to- then have a clear idea of what that message is. You can’t get by on a few neat ideas and a contrived plot.

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