Lazy Like a Fox
By Adam Nayman
Dir. Karyn Kusama, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox
If nothing else, Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body brings Megan Fox to the logical endpoint of her screen persona—just as her career is beginning. Leaving aside rumors of on-set bitchiness (though Michael Bay sure is an odd one to be throwing stones), it should be said that the 22-year-old has at least been smart enough to work within a narrow and so far relatively flattering set of parameters. She was, for instance, perfectly fine essaying a sloe-eyed Eve Baxter type in Robert Weide’s unwieldy screen adaptation of the Hollywood tell-all How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Cast as an abstraction of starlet-dom, complete with a La Dolce Vita–style swimming pool vamp, Fox proved dimly alluring—especially in counterpoint to Kirsten Dunst’s caricatured professional-woman head case— and convincingly opaque.
Opacity was also the common denominator between Fox’s performances—or, better, “appearances”—in Michael Bay’s awful Transformers and its somehow even more awful sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. While I’m not limber enough for the sort of critical calisthenics that would recast Bay’s adman-on-fire aesthetics as neo-Godardian flourishes, there was an impressive consistency between the director’s presentation of heavy/sentient artillery and his views of his leading lady: whether leaning suggestively over a popped car hood or wrapping her sculpted legs around a motorcycle seat, Fox seemed less a human performer than a refugee from the uncanny valley, all Photoshop-precise proportions and dead Polar Express eyes.
Physical beauty is, of course, subjective, in life and in cinema (I am aware of fellow film critics with loudly stated proclivities for everyone from Emma Thompson to Sylvie Testud to Eric Bana—I myself sat slack-jawed at the perpetual-motion spectacle that was Carice Van Houten’s performance in Black Book). But with Fox it’s most decidedly not subjective: where even consensus 21st-century foxes like Natalie Portman or Scarlett Johannson can be argued to have at least slightly idiosyncratic characteristics, Fox embodies no less (and no more) than the fearful symmetry of the uber-menschette—or at least the Eternal Head Cheerleader.
And that’s essentially what she’s playing in Jennifer’s Body, a girl whose flawless looks have not only defined her personality but also stand frighteningly in lieu of it. The joke of Diablo Cody’s screenplay is that Fox’s anodyne Jennifer Check—a high school goddess who overcomes the obstacles of an ID-checking bartender by volunteering a game of “hello titty”—finds her inner ugliness externalized after being possessed by a demon (which, it should be said for purposes of exposition, happens after members of an aspiring indie band, inexplicably pegging her as a virgin, attempt to sacrifice her following their show in the rural Minnesota backwater of Devil’s Kettle). And let it be said: it’s a pretty good joke, one that Fox is obviously in on and able to modulate with, if not finesse, at least the some of the same good-sport enthusiasm that the ever-affable Mila Jovovich displayed in the Resident Evil franchise.
The problem is that this good joke is also the only joke in Jennifer’s Body, and what’s more, it’s also a pretty old joke: enough critics have pointed out the film’s (derivative) similarities to the Canadian distaff lycanthropy saga Ginger Snaps that I won’t go to the trouble of inventorying them. Some have also compared Fox’s self-deprecating turn here to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough in The Terminator (1984), and while I understand the analogy, the difference—and it’s a huge one—is that Arnold was kidding his image in the service of a genre exercise that worked like gangbusters around him. Besides being ingeniously conceived and produced, James Cameron’s tech noir featured characters, like Linda Hamilton’s bewildered heroine and Michael Biehn’s emotionally armored but physically vulnerable time traveler, who existed in intriguing and—at least at the time, unpredictable—counterpoint to the hulking biomechanical antagonist. Jennifer’s Body has only one other major character—Jennifer’s best friend, Needy (Amanda Seyfried)—and her inability to function as an interesting foil is perhaps the biggest failing of Cody’s script. (Note: it goes without saying that Cody’s highly stylized dialogue is annoying, at least as much so as in Juno, but to go into detail would be both redundant and besides the point as to why this narratively and thematically inadequate film fails; suffice it to say that the height of verbal wit finds one character telling another: “You need a mani[cure] bad. You should find a Chinese chick to buff your situation.” LOLZ, rite?)
It’s not that Seyfried, who plays her own variant of eponymous black widow this fall in Atom Egoyan’s hilarious Chloe, is especially bad as Needy; it’s just that the conception of her Betty/Veronica dynamic with Jennifer is so hackneyed, right down to pixilated flashbacks detailing their childhood sandbox bonding. If director Karyn Kusama (she of the girl-boxer drama and film-studies dept. favorite Girlfight and the, shall we say, less interesting dystopia-lite fantasy Aeon Flux) thinks that she’s doing something really cool by intercutting between mousy Needy’s tender, lovey sexual relationship with her slacker-cute boyfriend (the very appealing Johnny Simmons) and demon-Jennifer’s abandoned-tenement death-fuck with a smitten emo kid—complete with silhouetted disembowelment lit to mimic force-five ejaculation—well, she’s either very naïve or very lazy. The film’s arc is completely flat: Needy suspects something is wrong with Jennifer; Needy’s suspicions are confirmed; Needy takes the bitch down; Needy gets recast as righteous avenger lest mall-kids perceive so determinedly kicky, glib, and weightless a Friday-night gore-fest to be some kind of downer. And the blonde/brunette tension, supposedly the film’s engine and Cody’s girl-savvy masterstroke, is similarly slack. Once you perceive that Needy resents/desires Jennifer’s pert perfection and that Jennifer lusts for Needy’s (allegedly) more substantive virtues, that’s about it.
Critics are in the business of diagnosis rather than prescription, but watching the film, I couldn’t help but think how much more compelling the same story could have been if a) Needy existed along a similar physical/behavioral continuum with her friend (with demonic possession finally giving Jennifer a social/sexual edge) or, even more radically/implausibly, if b) the two actresses had switched roles. Not only are Seyfried’s raccoon eyes miles more suggestive of some sort of feral/evil intelligence, but seeing Fox forced to play even slightly out of her range would have been either amusing (if we assume that she has no talent) or perhaps encouraging (if she had showed some facility for being something other than a flesh-and-blood prop).
The question of why one would worry about how to improve a movie as insubstantial as Jennifer’s Body is admittedly pretty low-stakes. The hype machine working in overdrive didn’t help its box-office fortunes, and its mainstreamlined carnage doesn’t even evoke the kind of wobbly pervert-hero worship bestowed upon, say, Rob Zombie for his idiot phantasmagorias. Jennifer’s Body showed in the Midnight Madness section at TIFF, but it’s all too sane, trafficking in easy, flimsy gender/body horror notions already mastered (and parodied) within the strictures of Joss Whedon’s Buffy/Angel-verse. Nevertheless, there are flickers of inspiration—like Kusama’s imaginative use of dilapidated suburban locations to denote character psychology, or the admittedly funny idea that, in the age of Facebook, paging Satan might be the best way to promote a generic mope-rock act—that feel worthy of a better, stickier, more ambitious pop horror show. Honest to Blog, guys.