In the end, sorry to say, Jennifer’s Body is forgettable. Because it’s actually charming in many ways. It’s a tale about a demon- possessed high school girl and her best friend. The possessed is Jennifer, a popular high school hottie, and a real boy eater-upper. The best friend is the descriptively named Needy, a dowdy, innocent girl content to ride Jennifer’s coattails into fun, adult situations. But remember, these aren’t adults. It’s made abundantly clear that these girls are merely in high school and only just coming to understand the power of their feminine bodies.
When the girls head out to a local bar to check out an indie rock band from the sophisticated city, it’s the beginning of a nightmare for them both. An electrical fire sets the bar aflame, and as it burns to the ground, the smarmy lead singer invites Jennifer to take a ride in the band’s van. Needy pleads with her not to go, but Jennifer is grown up, and desires to leave girlish regulations behind.
The movie is layered with metaphor. It’s pretty clear that the fateful ride in the band van is a metaphor for sexual trauma which is itself used as a metaphor for the destruction of innocence that comes from trying to grow up too fast. Jennifer gets in the van and soon discovers they have a plan in mind for her that is far worse than a regrettable night of drunken debauchery. They bring her to a spring in the town that, according to popular wisdom, may or may not be a portal to Hell. Once there they tie her up and, thinking her a virgin, they sacrifice her to Satan in exchange for worldly success. Which is quite clever, really, treating struggling indie rock groups as the morally corrupt modern day Man at the Crossroads.
Jennifer is not a virgin, however, and per rules of the occult, an impure sacrifice to the devil will arise again to eat of the flesh of the living. Her cut of choice is high school boys. One after another she seduces them, only to bare her teeth and devour them for the act of consummation. She keeps making appearances to Needy, covered in blood and acting generally possessed. Needy watches these alarming changes in her friend, in and out of school, and keeps giving her the benefit of the doubt, always trying to understand and never putting two and two together. This overlooked bit of logic is the most bizarre part of the movie. More than once she sees Jennifer covered in blood and acting like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and yet she doesn’t appear to make the connection between her friend and the murders (the aftermath of which look like “lasagna with teeth”) in this very small town. It’s not clear if this is the fault of the writer, the director, or both.
Neither one emerges from this unscathed. Diablo Cody, the writer, writes a very particular style of dialogue that is neither realistic nor witty, though it tries to be both. There is no spark of life in the teenagers' repartee; “Grassy-ass” Needy says to a Latino orderly in place of “thank you.” “You’ve been giving me a ‘wetty’ all year” says Jennifer to a goth-boy she’s trying to entice back to her lair — okay, that one’s pretty good… I don’t know, if you’ve seen Juno you know what I mean.
The director, Karyn Kusama, butchers the movie wherever she can find the leeway. I wouldn’t say that her stylized direction is all style and no substance. It’s more along the lines of tone-deaf and not seeing the forest for the trees. There are serious pacing problems. The recent deaths in the town create a backdrop of trauma within which the story operates and attains atmosphere. But she ruins this by ignoring establishment of mood, and relegating the build-up and come-down of scenes to about two seconds tacked on to their beginnings and ends. Diablo Cody is kind of a glorified sitcom writer, but all the more charming for it. Kusama, on the other hand, is a true hack, who should be relegated to directing sitcoms on a sound stage in Studio City.
Jennifer’s Body is basically a horror movie with some humor that emerges particularly if looked at with an ironic eye. I’m not sure why now, but I was definitely expecting more camp. As it is, I’m glad it didn’t overindulge in that aspect of horror-sex comedies and unapologetically took itself seriously most of the time. Still, most viewers will bring an awareness of the genre clichés, and while this adds another layer of viewing, it also necessarily undermines the drama and thriller aspects. Such are the perils of the terrain.
Finally, the actors are decent enough in their roles, if a bit miscast. I don’t care if they’re a mere 23 years young. They still look too old to be in high school. Amanda Seyfried inhabits Needy convincingly enough, but she comes across as too self-possessed, likely a feature of her age and, ahem, rather fecund beauty. Megan Fox plays the man-eater part very well, but we’ve seen her as that character before. In each of her roles so far, she’s had moments where her true range shines through, and I’m convinced that if she would only take better parts she could become the best actress of her generation. But what am I, her agent?
As it is, not even her substantial luminosity can save Jennifer’s Body from its fate — which is for it to be tossed into the pile of forgotten films, representative of their era, but of almost no interest to future movie fans. Too bad it’s mediocre, because it had the potential to be good. It’s like the sum of its parts overwhelmed the fragile frame and it collapsed under its own weight.