“Hell is a teenage girl.”
Really, that about sums up the movie. Riding high on her surprise Oscar win, this is Diablo Cody’s second screenwriting gig, following indie hit Juno (2007), and it’s a far more cynical, scathing piece of work, sitting uncomfortably somewhere between horror and teen comedy. Despite featuring the then-smoking hot commodity of Megan Fox, who had become so predominantly because of Michael Bay’s completely gratuitous bum-shot in 2007’s Transformers, Jennifer’s Body never quite manages to be either scary or hilarious. It’s a bit too knowing, a bit too self-aware, a bit too smug. Yet perhaps had it not received the mainstream attention it would have found its own audience, one who appreciate this kind of genre-bending, achingly hip story. Perhaps then it might have developed a little cult following.
Since Juno, the anti-Cody faction has risen up, proclaiming the former stripper to be not only a poor writer but a blight on the world of screenwriting in general. Whether this vitriol it deserved or not is left to personal taste – I must admit that a recent viewing of Young Adult left little more than a rather bitter taste in my mouth, and I’m a fan of black humour. The comedy in Jennifer’s Body emerges more as the film progresses; that kind of wry irony exposing the utter superficiality and ridiculousness of teenage girldom. Initially, the set up is straightforward and, like her or loathe her, Cody clearly understands the pubescent teenage mentality. The friendship between Jennifer (Fox) and nerdy Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is one that most post-teen females will be familiar with: Jennifer is the popular, beautiful, sexually active cheerleader who, for some apparently inexplicable reason has retained her childhood best friend, the gawky, awkward, unpopular dweeb Needy. A case of charity, perhaps? Or a sign that true friendship transcends the enforced hierarchy of the school corridor? Well, no. Jennifer is one of those friends that we’ve all had at some point – one we’re desperate to keep a hold of despite having little in common, one who makes us feel terrible about ourselves through passive aggressive bitching, one who we know is toxic, but we can’t bear the thought of no longer being in the inner circle. I wonder which friend Cody was in her youth – it may be unjustified, but my guess is she was the bad friend, now trying to pretend she was the good one.
But I digress. Jennifer and Needy head off to a dive bar, where some unknown indie band, Low Shoulder, are playing. Jennifer’s got her eyes on the lead singer (Adam Brody), the suave city boy with a heart full of angst and torment. Or something. Soon the bar is burning to a cinder, with flaming bodies flailing around, and Jennifer’s in the back of the band’s van before Needy can bat an eyelash behind her stereotypically geeky glasses. Later on, Jennifer reappears in Needy’s house, where she eats chicken like a caveman and spews out oily black goo. With the town in mourning, the (male) bodies that pile up add to the town’s celebrity status until no one even cares that much any more. Needy conceals the fact that her BFF is eating all the boys, and gradually the humour seeps in to this teen horrror pic, most notably thanks to Low Shoulder, the grating hipster band who kickstarted the whole tragic affair.
It’s easy to see why the backlash started against Cody after this film came out. Subtle it certainly ain’t. The subtext may as well just be plain text – as though the demonic possession is not obviously metaphorical enough, there are frequent references to PMS and puberty. And, of course, there’s that aforementioned quote. Yes, hell truly is a teenage girl – with or without the demon. It’s the body that causes all the problems, and this is a hormone-ridden, blood-soaked nightmare, where sexuality is rampant, bitching is a way of life, and tits rule supreme. Really, the boys don’t stand a chance. Yet the girls are equally doomed, really; they are slaves to their bodies. Jennifer is the victim, though it’s often hard to remember because she’s so two-dimensional as a character – scratch the surface here, and there’s more surface.
I cannot help but be reminded of Ginger Snaps, a lesser known cult series that shares much with Cody’s story. There, lycanthropy serves as the metaphor for the changing pubescent body and, while it too lacks subtlety, it works. Here, it all feels a touch desperate – the barely concealed message, the annoyingly drippy Needy, the high school clichés, the lesbian romp. The infuriatingly hip language that was so endearing in Juno is plain grating here, partly because of its crudeness, but mostly because it’s far too obvious. So words like “lesbigay”, “salty” and “fucktarded” swim around your brain and refuse to leave, though you can never actually use them because, quite simply, it would be too cloyingly cool.
It’s a shame, actually, because it’s not really a terrible film. As a fan of high school flicks, this didn’t irritate too much – sure, I shook my head exasperatedly at times, and cringed at others, but I can’t help but enjoy the inevitability of a nice Emo guy going to an abandoned house for his date with the possessed, hungry cheerleader. I appreciated the irony of the band’s reasons for sacrifice (like the rest of the film, it’s hardly unexpected, but it does feel rather satisfying in its self-obsessed inanity) and was even surprised to feel a slight pang of sympathy for Jennifer in the end. Perhaps less tampon references would have made me like it more, but as it stands it is far from the disaster that the masses enjoyed proclaiming when it first was released.