Saturday, October 3, 2009

Diablows: Jennifer’s Body

Blaming Diablo Cody for the atrocity that is Jennifer’s Body is like blaming a child who has only ridden the merry-go-round for getting bucked off a wild bronco. There’s no question that Cody fails here. That’s her lying in the dirt, covered in bruises inflicted by clumsy one-liners that trampled her reputation as America’s hot young screenwriter. But if we’re going to critique Cody – and we will – we should also ask ourselves what she’s doing in this rodeo to begin with. One film removed from the breakout debut of Juno, which owes its wild success as much to director Jason Reitman and actors Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as to its Oscar-winning screenplay, Cody finds herself as the marquee attraction of an R-rated horror/comedy that’s directed by someone who hasn’t helmed a film since 2005’s AEon Flux (Karyn Kusama) and stars an actress best known for running from CGI explosions (Megan Fox). As challenges go, this isn’t just riding without a saddle. It’s like straddling a galloping horse that’s been covered in grease.

Cody isn’t up to it. But how could executives from Fox, the studio that purchased the rights to Cody’s follow-up (not to be confused with the uber-hyped actress who stars in it), think she would be? With Juno, Cody had help. Lots of it. All celebrated screenplays do. That’s how they become celebrated. If it’s true that actors are only as strong as their material, it’s truer still that screenplays are only as strong as their actors. You can take out your highlighter and mark the classic lines in the script for Casablanca, but all that yellow ink wouldn’t undo the fact that those lines were given life by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre. The actors didn’t design the clever product, but they did something at least as important: they manufactured it with expert prowess. Here, Cody’s latest screenplay is in the hands of less distinguished craftsmen, and as justifiable as it is to criticize the design of a two-legged table, which is what Jennifer’s Body resembles, it’s also worth pointing out that its manufacturers struggle to hit a nail with a hammer.

As culpable as Cody is Kusama, whose directing doesn’t do the screenplay any favors. Jennifer’s Body is rife with pointless slo-mo and camera choices that are curious at best. For example, early in the film Kusama gives us at least three nearly identical shots of a fire breaking out at a packed tavern without providing any sense of where the flames are in relation to the principal characters, Megan Fox’s titular Jennifer and Amanda Seyfried’s Needy. Not long after that, Jennifer and Needy have an ostensibly private conversation while speaking in hardly-hushed voices in the middle of a packed classroom. Then, late in the film, Kusama makes an out-of-nowhere switch to tight, straight-on close-ups of Jennifer and Needy that disturbs the rhythm of the film’s most pivotal scene. Of course, Kusama’s biggest shortcoming is her inability to create the kind of fantasy environment that would allow Cody’s colorful dialogue to rocket like fireworks instead of plummeting like bombs. Where Juno was taut and punchy, Jennifer’s Body is limp and lifeless.

For most of that, Cody will and should get the blame. Jennifer’s Body isn’t merely poorly written, it’s crawl-under-your-chair embarrassing. It’s as if Juno’s worst one-liners – a “home skillet” here, an “honest to blog” there – found a way to procreate, giving life to cringe-inducing lingo like “cheese and fries” (an expression of surprise), “move-on-dot-org” (an expression of exasperation) and “penis cheese” (an expression of I-don’t-know-what). Cody’s witticisms run the gamut from clever but forced (calling a creepy van “an ’89 rapist”) to just plain forced (having Needy’s mother call herself a “hard-ass, Ford-tough mama bear”) to, in the film’s vernacular, totally “freak-tarded” (like the moment when a character raves that something is “the best thing since Jesus invented the calendar,” which could only have been funny if people actually raved about calendars).

If a weekend filmmaker emulated banter like this on YouTube, Cody would likely take offense. Or maybe not. Ironic is the moment when the same character who earlier utters the phrase “Nice hardware, Ace,” puts down another character’s one-liner with “Nice insult, Hannah Montana.” Cody’s dialogue here is so unbelievably lame that it’s impossible to know when we’re supposed to be laughing with the movie and when we’re supposed to be laughing at it. Consequently, my audience did the only logical thing: we didn’t laugh at all. The only audible responses that Jennifer’s Body earned were groans in response to a colossally terrible line involving a box cutter and an even worse visual gag involving a road sign. Forget Oscar-worthy, this screenplay isn’t even matinee-worthy. It’s nothing short of disastrous, which is why it’s so awkward that the material seems so desperate for affection.

It’s no coincidence then that Jennifer’s Body is at its best when it doesn’t seem to be trying so hard. Fox, as Jennifer, may be an empty vessel, but Seyfried manages to make Needy endearing, in part because she has multiple scenes opposite Johnny Simmons, who so underplays his role as Needy’s unhip boyfriend Chip that he proves impervious to Cody’s overstated dialogue, even managing to make the expression “zombie-mannequin-robot-statue” seem plausible. Adam Brody is equally sharp as the lead singer of a band called Low Shoulder, and he seems to be the only actor who is playing the dialogue rather than letting the dialogue play him. It’s a juicy little scene-stealing performance. Sure, Brody’s lip-synching is only slightly more plausible than Michael J. Fox’s in Back to the Future, but I welcomed each Low Shoulder performance of “Through the Trees” because the lyrics of that song are more pleasing to the ear than any of this movie’s dialogue.

Damning as that is, accurate as that is, let’s make one thing clear: The flop that is Jennifer’s Body by no means tarnishes the (flawed) triumph that is Juno. Those who continue to criticize that Best Picture nominee for its unrealistic dialogue ignore that Ellen Page’s Juno MacGuff isn’t meant to be anything less than an original. Juno remains finely directed and acted – sometimes in thanks to Cody’s screenplay and sometimes in spite of it. That’s the way movies work most of the time. Jennifer’s Body was never going to make a great film, that much is obvious, but the studio made it altogether worse by not putting Cody’s screenplay in more capable hands. Debate all you want whether Cody deserved her Oscar for Juno. No one deserves this.


elgringo said...

That opening line made me laugh out loud. For some reason, I thought that Diablo Cody had both written and directed Jennifer's Body. Well, at least I know what the director of Girlfight's been up to for the past ten years.

El Gringo

Richard Bellamy said...

"For most of that, Cody will and should get the blame. Jennifer’s Body isn’t merely poorly written, it’s crawl-under-your-chair embarrassing."

"Jennifer’s Body was never going to make a great film, that much is obvious, but the studio made it altogether worse by not putting Cody’s screenplay in more capable hands."

Well said in the passages above - and well said throughout. The script was terrible, but the director made it worse. But another question - how did the script ever get the go ahead? Does it read better than it plays? I think not.

What do you make of those benign animals in the woods looking on as Jennifer devours the football jock? That was head-scratching indeed!

And thanks very much for the link to the Megan Fox post.

Jason Bellamy said...

El Gringo: Thanks. Though Kusama finds ways to fail as the director all on her own, it's pretty clear that Cody might has well have been in the director's chair. Maybe Kusama was pressured by the studio to worship Cody's script or maybe she's just tone deaf. Either way, it doesn't work.

Hokahey: Does it read better than it plays? I think not.

I agree. And yet I also recognize that there are some atrocious lines in Juno that manage not to offend too much because (a) the overall story is better and (b) the director and actors create a convincing environment in which the dialogue seems genuine, rather than what we have here, which often seems like actors doing a read-through.

For example, in Juno there's the scene where Juno calls her friend and just starts talking and her friend responds, "Juno?" and then Juno says, "No, it's Morgan Freeman. Do you have any bones that need collecting?" I mean, that's just bad. It's a desperate attempt to work in a pathetic joke. But lines like that don't offend nearly as much as similarly poor dialogue in this movie.

I have a hunch that Reitman cut some of the flashier Cody dialogue in Juno. The same thing needed to happen here.

As for the animals ...

What was absurd is that all of these different creatures gathered around apparently to scavenge the remains of the jock -- even non-scavenging animals. But I think it's meant to be purely absurd, so that didn't bother me. What bothered me was that the scene was also meant to be hilarious, and it isn't. Cute, maybe.

Daniel said...

My surprise that you saw JB is only outdone by my enjoyment from reading your review. It's going to take a good review of a movie like this for me to continue reading after the first paragraph.

But augh, you almost lost me at the end with a (admittedly qualified) defense of Juno! Well you might have seen me take a few digs at it at my place over the last year, but let's just move on dot org from that debate anyway.

But really, this is the kind of writing that makes me want to sit down and read through all of the reviews you have listed on your sidebar. Humorous, engaging, and witty, without being overly verbose. And with a smooth flow throughout. Sounds like I've described a beer or something - nicely done.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Thanks so much for the kind words. I'm touched to be compared to a beer, though I'm a little hurt you didn't compliment my fine hops.

I need to go back and read your Juno slams. You're wrong of course. I know that without even reading. (Well, maybe.)

I.V.P. said...

Maybe because I'm from parochial old England, but I found Cody's dialogue hilarious. I LOLed even when reading the lines you quoted in your review...

Also, for what is a sexy horror b-movie, I thought your attacks on Karyn Kusama were a little pedantic. Jennifer's Body was scary. It was sexy. Kusama did exactly what was required in my opinion.

But whatev. What's REALLY missing here is any mention (awareness?) of the film's themes. Didn't you think Cody was providing a rather interesting comment on teenage girls dealing with sex and objectification and patriarchy? Isn't it refreshing to have a horror film that doesn't take perverse pleasure in vividly dissecting nubile females, but has a feminist undertone? Isn't the use of Megan Fox in such a context rather inspired?

Apologies for the angry tone. This was my film of the year, and I get rather defensive over it....

Jason Bellamy said...

Mercer: No offense taken. I have thick skin and you have every right to your opinion. As for this ...

Didn't you think Cody was providing a rather interesting comment on teenage girls dealing with sex and objectification and patriarchy?

Well, no. I won't argue with you about Cody's aim, but did I find it interesting? Nope.

So it seems you connected with the film in all the ways -- thematic and comedic -- that one would need to in order to enjoy this film. But it felt flat for me, in every way.

Thanks for weighing in.