Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hollywood Interlude: Jennifer's Body


I watched Jennifer's Body last night despite the huge critical backlash against Diablo Cody, who wrote the film, and the stink of box office failure on the film itself. The problem, as far as I can tell from the reviews I read, is that Jennifer's Body is not another Juno. Speaking - or rather writing - as one of the few people who found Juno to be as obnoxious and affected and as overly precious as Juno herself, I was pleased to hear it. In fact, after seeing Jennifer's Body, I am pleased to say that it is a delightful send-up of the middlebrow, indie-rock fueled film about "young people" genre that Juno exemplified.

The disconnect between Diablo Cody's intentions and the audience means that ultimately Jennifer's Body fails as a mass market film. However, it's by no means a bad film and has all the makings of cult classic - I plan on purchasing a copy to put right next to Ginger Snaps on my DVD shelf. Where Cody went wrong in appealing to the mass market audience almost perfectly matches up in where she went right in appealing to me and my demographic of youngish women who not only enjoy a nice juicy piece of mythological storytelling (as apposed to the more realistic tone and characters of Juno) but who also suffer from a bit of figurative PTSD from their toxic high school years.

Jennifer's Body is the story of Anita "Needy" Lesniki (Amanda Seyfried) and her friendship with the titular Jennifer (Megan Fox) - a friendship complicated by the fact that, as shown in the trailers, Jennifer turns into a demon and needs to eat boys to stay alive. Amanda and Megan do a fantastic job with their characters. Jennifer is the embodiment of the hype that surrounds Megan Fox. She has the entire male population at her feet and yet, in a nice bit of characterization by Cody, Jennifer is almost entirely alienated from female friendships. She exists as the world sees her, as an object. Amanda, as Needy, is the humanizing influence on Jennifer. Also, Needy has a massive girlcrush on her which is fully realized in another moment drawn out in the trailers. The friendship between the two women is the driving force of the entire narrative.

Needy has a boyfriend, the affable beta male Chip, whom Needy ditches to hang out with the more electrifying Jennifer whenever she can. Their romantic relationship was really satisfying to watch play out on screen, mocking, as it did, the actual appeal of those beta males and "nice guys" that Zack Braff and Michael Cera would have us believe are the new hot thing. Sorry, boys, your carefully tussled hair and mix CD don't hold a candle to the appeal of the girlcrush.

And if Needy's boring boyfriend is the Zack Braff of the piece then Jennifer represents the revenge of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - because that is what she is, but with very sharp teeth. She speaks in an exaggerated version of the Juno-isms that got so much praise and enjoys being unpredictable. We know almost nothing about her but then we never do in movies about MPDGs because the focus is always on the male point of view.

All of these relationships, so familiar to watchers of pop culture, play out on a canvas that mocks not only the Garden State-ization of indie films but the indie bands themselves. A lot of the humor in Jennifer's Body came from the exploits of a band-within-the-film "Low Shoulder" fronted by a surprisingly good looking Adam Brody.

Perhaps you are wondering why I am discussing a Hollywood film on my Indian film blog. Well, Jennifer's Body is the rare Hollywood exercise in choosing mythos over logos in it's story. It's not meant to be taken literally - instead the audience is meant to pick up the many metaphorical and extra-narrative plot threads that inform the story. This is exactly what appeals to me about popular Indian cinema - that sense of heightened reality. Looking at it like this, it's no wonder the very literal-minded American public couldn't understand what was happening in the film.

Before I wind this up, I'd like to discuss one of the reviews of the film that I feel kind of exemplifies the types of criticisms leveled at Jennifer's Body - from that bastion of middlebrow male reviewing The Onion AV Club:

After first complaining that the film lacked the "sincerity" that Juno had, the reviewer goes on to declare that "[n]either Megan Fox nor Amanda Seyfried can handle the wordplay like Ellen Page did. As they play best friends on opposite sides of the popularity divide, Fox rips into her line-readings with lusty overconfidence, while Seyfried timidly pushes them across, as if they were written in a second language."

If I may - first of all, saying that Jennifer and Needy were on opposite sides of the popularity divide is a FUNDAMENTAL misunderstanding of the story. They were, in fact, on the same side of the popularity divide. Here is something that men don't always know: the girls that are popular with boys are rarely popular with girls. The reason that Jennifer continued to hang out with Needy is that Jennifer had no other friends. Needy has a boyfriend and a few friends in her classes. Jennifer does not. Pretty does not equal popular, contrary to what Mr. Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club believes. Secondly, the "wordplay" that he so loved in Juno is being mocked by Cody herself - which is why Megan Fox spits it out so lustily. Needy speaks in a much more naturalistic manner and when she does quip, it's done with a hesitance that shows she is putting on an act. They were not playing two Junos and failing, they were playing two very different characters who approach speaking in two very different ways.

Next he complains that "Cody’s script fails in the fundamentals, like establishing the odd dynamic of Fox and Seyfried’s friendship, or defining the particular anxieties of teenage life." Really? Because I think she captured it quite well. Considering that Mr. Scott Tobias has (probably) never been on either side of a girlcrush or even an inward-looking female friendship or even ASKED women about their personal lives, it is understandable that he didn't get the draw of Jennifer for Needy or how Jennifer used Needy to ward away feelings of loneliness. Unlike the 'bonds of brotherhood forged in war' or 'two cops that are complete opposites but then learn to work together,' a look at the inner workings of the erotically charged friendship of two teenage girls has not been much explored on screen - especially when not written for the titillation of the male viewer or sanitized for the Lifetime audience.

And, again, it's understandable that Mr. Scott Tobias didn't pick up on the constant references to the "particular anxieties" of being a teenage girl and figuring out how to use your body and what all your different desires mean - never having been a teenage girl himself.

For me, the film worked. I thought it was clever and I really enjoyed seeing a movie about two women where a boyfriend was not the central motivator (or even very relevant) in the story. I wouldn't recommend this to everyone, certainly if you have no sympathies towards teenage girls then you won't much enjoy this but also, I would warn off anyone who treats film as logos because Jennifer's Body makes no attempt to portray anything close to "real" life.

Everyone else - I'll meet you in Devil's Kettle High School!

3 comments:

eliza bennet said...

First off, I loved reading this. Thank you.

Now at the risk of sounding uncool (since it is probably considered cool not to like Juno in a Juno like crowd) I'll admit liking Juno. And Ellen Page's performance has a lot to do with her (I like her a lot)

And having liked Ginger Snaps I'll most definitely give this film a try. Especially after reading your thoughts.

I have doubts about whether Mr.Tobias' misunderstandings have anything to do with not being able to experience any of the characters' situations in real life though:)

Filmi Girl said...

@Eliza I don't think it's uncool to like Juno - I think I'm in the minority who didn't like it. :) It just wasn't my cup of tea.

If you liked Ginger Snaps, you should definitely check out Jennifer's Body because it reminded me most of that movie!

And I think most male reviewers are too biased against films aimed at women to be able to judge them acurately. Not overtly biased but an internalized bias that they may not be aware of...

That's why the industry needs more female critics! XD

simran said...

Great review :D I would watch the movie but I think I'll pass :P I'm a total chicken when it comes to anything remotely scary lol ... :)

If you didnt like Juno, did you watch or like Tere Sang? I personally never got around to watching it yet.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl