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.