Friday, September 11, 2009

Toronto FilmFest Reviews: Jennifer's Body

This year I've purchased tickets to the entire Midnight Madness programme, which is where the cultier, nerdier, SF-ier and horror...ier films tend to be shown during TIFF. Not that this is a ghetto or anything; it tends to draw the most enthusiastic crowds, which for TIFF is saying something. Anyway, my film festival experience this year kicks off with the film I was most trepidatious about: Jennifer's Body.

It's directed by Karyn Kusama, who did "Girlfight" and "Aeon Flux" as well as some episodes of "The L Word"--a pretty dubious resume. It's written by Diablo Cody, Oscar-winning writer for Juno, who inspires love and hatred in equal measure. And it stars the Source of All Evil Who Shall Not Be Named, Megan Fox.

As a friend of mine said right before I left for the screening: "Oh, that? That's going to suck."

Well, I didn't hate it. But.


The movie also stars Amanda Sayfried (of Momma Mia--maybe I should include her in the "elements of the movie likely to set some people's teeth on edge") as "Needy" Lesnicky, a hopeless teenage nerd who nevertheless seems to do OK popularity-wise. That's partly because her best friend since childhood is Jennifer Check, head cheerleader and alpha bitch of Devil's Kettle high. (The town is named for a local whirlpool, which is strongly implied to be a Hellmou--I mean, a "portal to another dimension") Needy is actually the target of much of Jennifer's bitchiness, but Needy doesn't mind, because it's all friendly bitchiness. Right?

One night, the girls decide to attend a concert by a local indie-band on their way up known as Low Shoulder, sort of like Arcade Fire with less talent and a great deal more douchebaggery. Jennifer is smitten with the lead singer, Nikolai (Adam Brody--the outside of the theater was crammed with teenage girls shrieking "ADAM! ADAM!" Which is my name. Made for a surreal experience.) In fact, she's so smitten that even when the bar catches fire in the middle of their set, killing several attendees, Jennifer still dazedly goes off with Nikolai in his "rapist van" as Needy dubs it. Traumatized and abandoned, Needy heads home, but later that night Jennifer shows up beaten and bloody and half-dead, starts devouring the contents of Needy's fridge like an animal, and vomits a truly evil sludge all over Needy's floor. She even seems on the verge of hurting Needy before breaking off and disappearing.

The next morning, though, Jennifer is back and appears totally normal. Everyone else isn't, though, as the school and the town, led by science teacher Mr. Wroblewski (J. K. Simmons! His appearance got the biggest cheer of the night) enter into a protracted mourning period, whose unofficial anthem is Low Shoulder's mope-rock opus "Through the Trees", and which seems to correspond with their sudden skyrocketing to fame.

And then Jennifer starts eating boys.

The movie is very much the style of Juno overlaid on an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (which Kusama very pointedly did NOT list among her influences while presenting the movie). This leads to some surprising layers of depth to what would otherwise be a generic teen horror flick. The relationship between Needy and Jennifer rings very true and has lots of sharply observed, witty moments. It's neither a giggly feel-good fest or an over-the-top catfight, but simply a believable portrait of a toxic friendship which is nevertheless oddly comfortable, of the kind teenagers often find themselves in. As long as the movie focuses on this stuff, it's really quite good--even Megan Fox's performance is pretty solid when she's playing off Sayfried (it helps that she basically seems to be playing herself). It also helps that Cody has a huge level of sympathy for her characters--all of Jennifer's victims feel like real, sympathetic people (it's refreshing to see a jock portrayed as a human being with feelings). And Brody, the only real exception to this rule, playing an utter scumbag, nevertheless pretty much walks away with the flick.

However, in spite of the movie's many surprising strengths, it also has a lot of unsurprising weaknesses. I mentioned that Fox's performance was good in parts--but it's pretty bad in others. She gets one awesomely creepy moment that she pulls off beautifully, but otherwise all her "scary" stuff falls completely flat. Meanwhile, Cody's dialogue ping-pongs between funny and ear-rendingly cutesy. There's nothing as godawful as "honest to blog", but the movie is generally in that mode for much of its running time. I can see what Cody's trying to do, and sometimes she pulls it off--teenagers really do speak in garbled pop culture references sometimes, and when Fox accuses Sayfried's boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons, basically playing the exact same character Michael Cera did in Juno) of being jealous by saying "You're Jello, you're lime-green Jello", it does sound like something a teenager would say. But other times it fails badly at sounding like anything remotely human or even at being funny, and the cumulative effect is not fun.

The movie also makes a major, major misstep by starting at the beginning and flashing back, therefore keeping the audience about five steps of everything that's going to happen. Admittedly, it's kind of fun to see the movie go into overdrive right at the climax, and then stay at that level right through the end credits (all of which is helped by a head-spinning cameo appearance) but if you can't predict the basics of the last half of the movie's plot, you must be asleep.

Ultimately, this was the kind of campy fun that can be enjoyable at Midnight Madness, but I can't in good conscience recommend it to everyone. If anything whatsoever about "Juno" rubbed you the wrong way, "Jennifer's Body" will probably multiply that times ten. It's not without its pleasures, but they probably aren't worth it to the average horror fan who's seen all this a dozen times before. On the other hand, it is nice to see a horror movie made by women, with a female audience clearly in mind, so who knows, maybe that will be enough for a lot of people. I do predict a cult hit, if not mainstream success.

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