Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: "Jennifer's Body"

I have to admit, I went in to Jennifer's Body with rather low expectations. First off, there's director Karyn Kusama, whose 2000 feature debut Girlfight was pretty good. But her 2005 follow-up, a live-action version of the old MTV animated short Aeon Flux starring the beautiful Charlize Theron, was quite frankly, awful. Then there is the screenwriter Diablo Cody, whose feature film debut was a critical darling, but which I despised (more on that, another time). Finally, the title role was being played by Megan Fox, an actress best known for her physical attributes rather than her ability to act. So in my mind, the movie had three strikes, right off the bat (you should excuse the baseball analogies... cause here's the only reason I'd ever actually go to a baseball game). Anyway, I was pretty sure it was going to suck, which is why my companion (I love you, Matty!) and I went to the 11 AM show - it was only $6.

Jennifer Check (Fox) is a popular and hot cheerleader at her high school in a small town named for its weird waterfall which ends in a reported bottomless pit. Whatever is thrown into the swirling vortex at the bottom of the falls (red rubber balls, sacrificial knives) never returns or comes out anywhere else. She is best friends since the sandbox with Anita "Needy" Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried), a mousy little gal with limp hair and nerdy glasses, who has an adorably nerdy boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons) who is always being abandoned as Needy obeys Jennifer's every whim. At the outset, we already know that Jennifer is a man eater because she refers to hot guys as being "salty" and advises Needy to use her breasts to get whatever she wants from a boy. When a band with the unlikely name of Low Shoulder comes o play the only bar in town, Jennifer declares the lead singer (The O.C.'s Adam Brody) salty, Needy tags along to the show. A fire breaks out, many are killed and Jennifer is whisked away in the band's van, much to Needy's consternation. Needless to say, things go downhill from there. Jennifer soon returns to Needy's, covered in blood and puking green-black bile all over the linoleum floor of Needy's kitchen.

As you know from the trailers, Jennifer is possessed by a hungry demon (the result of botched human sacrifice on the part of the so-desperate-they'll-sell-their-souls band); a Succubus who seduces and then eats her prey which, in this case, is boys. It is up to Needy to figure out what's going on and how to stop the fiend that her best friend has become. Pretty standard stuff for a horror plot, no? But surprisingly, Cody and Kusama pull it off quite well, owing it entirely the film's cast, all of whom "get" the genre's humor and play it up for all it's worth. They is plenty of Cody's quirky dialog (I am now particularly enamored of the word "freak-tarded") and plenty of teenage sexual angst (Women's, Gender and Sexual Studies professors will have a field day with this one). Cody taps into teen sexuality in a completely different way than she did in Juno, without the oh-so annoying characters and godawful soundtrack.

Surprisingly, Fox proves that she actually can act, though it will take another movie that isn't Transformers or another Horror movie to convince me she has any real range. Here she is alternately sexy, funny, bitchy and downright terrifying. Simmons is goofy and cute in the Justin Long role of Needy's disbelieving boyfriend. Terribly underused are the always amazing Amy Sedaris ("Strangers with Candy") as Needy's Mom and Cynthia Stevenson ("Dead Like Me") as Chip's Mom. And in the film's funniest role. the always brilliant J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man; "The Closer") is Mr. Wroblesky, a teacher who is more upset by the tragic incidents than any of the students. Wearing what well may be the funniest wig in the history of cinema, speaking in an outrageous hilarious deadpan Midwestern accent and sporting a... well, I won't ruin that joke for you. Needless to say, out of about a dozen or so in attendance, my friend and I were the only ones who laughed (and we laughed long and hard).

But more than any other performer, Jennifer's Body belongs to Ms. Seyfried. The Mama Mia and "Big Love" star not only has the best character arc, going from timid follower to mad avenger; she plays the role honestly, without relying on the tricks some other actress might have used. You can't help but root for from the very beginning, before the real story even starts to unfold.

I must admit that I was quite pleased to find my misgivings were unwarranted. Cody, Kusama and company have delivered almost everything a horror fan wants from a movie: gore, humor, originality and a genuine fright or two. Is it as good as this summer's best horror movie, Drag Me to Hell? Not by a long shot. Is it better than every other horror movie not directed by Sam Raimi this summer? Most assuredly. *** (Three Stars). Rated "R" by the MPAA for Language, Horrific Violence, Gore and Sexual Situations.

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