The successful horror comedy is a rare and elusive find. Not only does it need to be both scary and funny, but it has to blend the two together in almost perfect symmetry. Some of the best films that strike an ideal balance between terrors and laughs include An American Werewolf In London, Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, and Fright Night. They’re the best of an already small group.
We first meet Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried) in a mental ward for troubled teens. She narrates the story of what led her to end up wearing a jumpsuit and bunny slippers, and it all starts with her best friend, Jennifer Check. Jennifer is played by Megan Fox which means contractually we’re first introduced to her in her underwear. The two high schoolers are polar opposites on the social scale with Needy the introverted bookworm and Jennifer the mid-drift baring, cleavage showing, most popular girl in school. Friends since their sandbox days they’re inseparable until the night Jennifer decides to get into a van belonging to a sketchy rock band (led by Adam Brody) and Needy wisely stays behind. Later that night Jennifer turns up at Needy’s house bloody, wild-eyed, and vomiting spiky black oil, but the next day at school she’s back to her usual sexy and flushed self. Soon the boys who’d like nothing more than to dance their tongues down Jennifer’s body are instead having their own bodies torn apart and consumed… and Needy’s boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) may be next on the menu. What’s a homely BFF with an inferiority complex to do?
I’ll let you discover the details of what she does for yourself, but just know that Jennifer’s Body leans heavily towards the side of light, airy comedy. There’s blood and gore and disembowelment, but the tone rarely gets darker than Jennifer’s pink hoodie. One or two scenes aside, there’s really very little sense of menace or terror from the characters. Boys are being split open and devoured? Okay, here’s some pepper spray for your walk through the moonlit woods all alone… If you go in with that understanding the movie works well as a straight-forward comedy. Funny dialogue and strong performances keep things moving along smoothly and combined with the occasional murder set piece you may not even realize you’re watching a fairly strong statement on female empowerment.
Still with me? Good, because this is not a bad thing. It’s a fun twist on genre conventions and after the laughs it’s also the strongest aspect of the movie. Jennifer’s Body is directed by a woman, written by a woman, and stars two women in the lead roles of hero and monster. I’ll get to those specific individuals below, but the film’s story is also an ode of sorts to strengths, weaknesses, and overall complexities found in the average teenage girl. An exploration of their relationships with each other, with the horn-dog guys around them, and with themselves is not something you commonly see in genre movies. Needy’s the good girl which means no sexual shenanigans right? Wrong… she hits the bed sheets with Chip, giddily watches him put on a condom, and actually tells him to put it in her. And yet she’s still the heroine. Needy and Jennifer are the two with all the power… power over boys’ hearts (both romantically and literally), power to take lives and save lives, and the power to determine what happens next in their own lives. Basically the boys run around dying while the girls run around doing, and it’s a nice change of pace.
Seyfried continues to build an impressive resume as she takes Needy from mousy, to terrified and devastated, to pure ass-kicking fury. (As an added bonus the scenes in the asylum give us a tantalizing tease of what could have been regarding her lost role in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Damn you Big Love Mormons!) JK Simmons and Amy Sedaris show up in smaller roles and both incur smiles and laughs… especially Simmons with more hair on his head than he’s probably ever had in real life. Brody deserves special mention as Nikolai Wolf. He gets some of the best lines in the movie and delivers them so silky smooth that you can’t help but laugh along with him even as he’s doing despicable things.
And then there’s Ms. Fox. The general consensus is that she’s all skin and no talent, but I’d argue that she displays both in Jennifer’s Body. She has opportunities here that the Transformers films never gave her including a more fleshed out character and intelligent lines of dialogue, and she bites into them like they were high school boys. Her comedic skills are actually fairly solid, at least when it comes to line delivery, but it’s her dramatic ability that surprises in two scenes in particular. One comes when she first reveals her situation to Needy and approaches her terrified best friend with a malicious yet playful expression that slowly and subtly turns into a devilishly perfect Cheshire grin. The other comes during her assault at the hands of the band and makes for the film’s sole scene of real emotional power. I’m not suggesting she needs to make room on her mantle for a small bald man, but I do think any future claims of her lack of acting talent are exaggerated and intentionally ignorant. Yeah, I’m making this bold claim… Megan Fox is a talented actress.
Director Karyn Kusama previously directed the engaging Girlfight and the not engaging at all Aeon Flux, but it’s her work on Showtime’s “The L Word” that helps bring the eighty-three second kissing scene between Jennifer and Needy to delicious life. Seriously, the slight tongue work and gentle lip biting? A thing of beauty and not exploitative in the slightest… Scenes where dialogue and expressions tell the story are fine, but (with the exception of the initial attack on Jennifer) Kusama’s attempts at terror play more like action scenes. She relies too many times on shots of Fox opening her mouth wide and rushing the camera.
While the film’s advertising campaign focuses on Fox and that sumptuous (and not exploitative at all) girl-on-girl kissing scene, the real woman to watch here is writer Diablo Cody. She broke out a couple years ago with the very good (yet somehow still overrated) surprise hit Juno. For all the media attention she received then and now it needs to be remembered that Jennifer’s Body is only her second produced screenplay. Most screenwriters go their entire career with zero public awareness which is an inexcusable shame in the face of all the ink spilled about Cody. That said, her basic story structure here is sound… it’s her dialogue that’s inconsistent. But Cody’s known for her whip smart dialogue you say? True, but it doesn’t mean it always works. For every line that finds the funny (Needy describes the van that stole away with Jennifer as an ’89 Rapist; Jennifer walks in on Needy and Chip and says “It smells like Thai food in here… have you guys been fucking?”) there’s an obvious ‘look at me!’ line to remind us all how witty Cody’s characters are (Jennifer calls Chip “jello” as in jealous, then does it again complete with added description of him being “lime green jello”; another character says “cheese and fries” for Jesus Christ; a police cadet/jock type says “for realz”). Cody also relies too often on cultural references that risk hurting the film’s staying power. Her Maroon 5 and MoveOn.org lines are funny, but will anyone get the joke in a few years time?
Jennifer’s Body is a slight and wispy contribution to the horror comedy genre, but it is a pretty funny movie with a fair amount of blood, gore, and violence. The tone between the two halves never quite gels, and we end up with a light-hearted romp about high school girls and demons, and it seems on the edge of saying so much more about the dangerous power of girls’ friendships, but instead it says just enough. There’s also a dash of Heathers-like satire in how the school reacts to the murders which again is not fully explored. None of this means the movie is a failure though as it’s still a fun and fast ride complete with lots of laughs and a few chills. I just wish it had a little more heart on display… not counting the one dangling from the football player’s chest cavity.
The Up Side: Humorous dialogue is fairly consistent throughout; fairly bloody and mildly gory; cool end credit photo montage to take care of a few loose threads; strong film for women both in front and behind the camera
The Down Side: Needy acts pretty stupid in not really telling anyone what she knows; there’s very little sense of danger around town; Cody’s occasional dialogue misfires can be painfully obvious and unfunny; topical humor will hurt the film’s staying power in the next few years
On The Side: I saw JK Simmons a few years ago in an arcade in San Diego. He was dressed exactly like his character from The Mexican.