Borders Line: An Impassioned Defense of JENNIFER’S BODY

Rewatching JENNIFER’S BODY reminds me what a damned shame it is that this movie was panned and ignored. I blame you.

I have never understood why Jennifer’s Body bombed at the box office. Well, that’s not true. I understand it, but I don’t approve of it. It’s not fair. It’s bullshit. A wickedly smart, original horror-comedy with gorgeous leads giving great performances and a highly gratifying amount of gore, this movie should have been a success. I was invested the first time I read about Jennifer’s Body, before it had even been cast; a horror movie directed by a woman, written by a woman, telling a story about two high school girls—it sounded like the holy grail to me.  I really liked director Karyn Kusama’s debut Girlfight. I’m probably the last remaining person post-backlash to still admit that I liked Juno. You guys did at first, too. Until screenwriter Diablo Cody won the Oscar.

I can’t help but think that if Cody weren’t a hot woman with pin-up tattoos who calls herself Diablo and wore a leopard-print dress to accept her Oscar, there would be no backlash. Don’t tell me it’s because she goes by Diablo. Is that worse than Lucky or McG? Don’t tell me it’s because she won what you believe to be an undeserving Oscar for her Juno screenplay. Did you hate Matt Damon and Ben Affleck after Good Will Hunting? That was in 1998, before the internet could spread vitriol with such rapidity and breadth as it does now, but I don’t recall a lot of flame wars and backlash over their win.  So that leaves…what? The fact that she’s hot, that she cheerfully admits to being a former stripper? Other than giving her an interestingly skewed perspective that not a lot of Hollywood screenwriters possess, I don’t see how that’s in any way relevant to her work.

Of course, you’d never admit to yourself that you don’t like Diablo Cody because she’s a hot former stripper with tats.  So you say it’s something else. You hate her dialogue, right? Nobody talks like that! Right? Here’s a tip, kids. Nobody talks like ANY movie’s dialogue, unless we’re discussing mumblecore or maybe Melvin Goes to Dinner. I much prefer Cody’s stylized, surreal jargon to the recycled “realistic” dialogue that we’re treated to in most movies. “Let’s just say I gave him a night he’ll never forget.” “We’ve got company.” “Let’s get out of here!” Do you talk like that? Christ, I hope not.  Cody employs an intentionally heightened way of speaking that clues us into the fact that we’re now in a heightened universe, whether it be filled with demon cheerleaders or dauntingly articulate pregnant teens.  Cody’s like Hughes, like Heckerling, like Heathers. The wacky slang is intentional, and it works.

Jennifer’s Body actually had a double-whammy working against it, because people love to hate Megan Fox with even more gleeful relish than they reserve for Cody.  She’s crazy hot and she’s a loudmouth.  If there’s one thing America hates, it’s a hot, loudmouthed woman.  (To be fair, America actually hates an overweight, loudmouthed woman even more.)  Katherine Heigl was probably thrilled when Fox started mouthing off all over the airwaves, talking about farts and calling Michael Bay “Hitler.”  Fox got Heigl off the hook, giving audiences a new beautiful, ballsy target for their ire.  Trashy men’s magazines even boycotted Fox for a day, punishing her for the over-exposure that they themselves created. The stupid, manufactured boycott occurred just two months before Jennifer’s Body opened, and it didn’t bode well for the movie. When it was recently reported that Fox is in negotiations to star in Judd Apatow’s next film, a sequel to Knocked Up, the trolls came out in droves. People just do not like this woman.

But back to Jennifer’s Body.  The film is witty and subversive, striking a perfect balance between familiar and fresh.  It calls back to Buffy and Heathers while hitting a little harder, going a little darker. It’s both gutsy and gutsy, in that it’s a courageous undertaking that is filled with slimy entrails.  The movie’s fun as hell, working on a superficial level of lesbian kisses and boatloads of blood while telling a more substantive story about the intense, sometimes toxic nature of high school friendships between girls.

The performances are all delicious. Amanda Seyfried carries the weight of the film on her slender shoulders, playing both tough and vulnerable as Anita (Needy). Fox plays queen bitch Jennifer as flat and dead-eyed, and I’m sure I’ll be ridiculed for my honest assertion that this is a deliberate acting choice on her part. She’s a vapid teen possessed by a rabid demon. Flat and dead-eyed is the perfect way to play it. She nails many of the funniest lines of the film; dialogue that might read as kind of funny on the page is made hilarious in that vacant monotone. “PMS isn’t real, Needy. It was invented by the boy-run media to make us seem crazy.” That shit is gold in Fox’s surprisingly deft hands.  The chemistry of the friendship between Needy and Jennifer is particularly well-executed by the leads. These girls act like they’ve known each other all of their lives, like they love and hate and need and envy each other with equal ardor.

Johnny Simmons is fantastic as Needy’s boyfriend Chip.  Simmons can pull off earnest, bemused and sardonic with a raised eyebrow or slight shrug. Between Jennifer’s Body and Scott Pilgrim, Simmons’ star should be sky-high by now—and would be if those two terrific performances weren’t in two of the most criminally neglected films of the last couple of years. And Adam Brody as a devil-worshipping Brandon Flowers is an absolute delight, dry and smarmy and fucking hilarious. You can tell Brody had a blast with the role.

Kusama uses a sure hand in directing the film. Jennifer’s Body has some killer shots and the pacing is spot-on, upbeat without exhausting the audience. The gore really is glorious; the film just shamelessly revels in a whole bunch of truly disgusting stuff.  Jennifer’s Body also boasts some of the coolest end credits ever, and the soundtrack is solid. Even the in-story song “Through the Trees” by evil indie band Low Shoulder gets caught in my head for days after each viewing.

I think Jennifer’s Body would have had a better shot had it been rated PG-13. But Kusama and Cody went balls-out and stuck to an R rating—shouldn’t we reward them for that?  As an audience, we rail at movie studio execs for pumping out endless horror sequels and remakes or hack romantic comedies. How can we blame them when they financed a completely original, unusual, franchise-free horror movie written and directed by two women, and that movie made $6.8 million opening weekend? How can we ask anyone to bankroll risky projects if we’re not going to celebrate those decisions by representing at the box office?

I would never argue that Jennifer’s Body is a perfect film. My argument is that because this movie was written by, directed by and starring women, critics and fans immediately raised the bar impossibly high. If this exact movie had Ti West or Neil Marshall’s name attached to it, everyone would see it for what it is: unique, ballsy and an absolute blast.  If you’ve never seen Jennifer’s Body, or if you watched it but dismissed it after the first ten minutes, examine yourself. Is there any knee-jerk misogyny behind your motivations?  If so, shake that shit off and rent this movie. VOD it.  Buy it.  But there’s something even more important that you can do. I’d love for Jennifer’s Body to become a cult classic, but it’s too late for the performance of that movie to sway the financiers in Hollywood. So the next time something new, something surprising, something risky makes its way to theaters, ask yourself what kind of message you want to send to the guys in charge.

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