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Rest Easy, Angelina

By Ted Boynton | Film | September 21, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | September 21, 2009 |

Had the phrase “hot mess” not existed before the release of Jennifer’s Body, the film would have presented the perfect excuse to coin it. Screenwriter and producer Diablo Cody’s second feature film, an ersatz horror story set in a small town high school, provides the first real test as an actor for internet-manufactured hottie Megan Fox, until now lost among giant robots and special effects in the Transformers franchise. As it turns out, Fox has neither the acting chops nor the movie star charisma to elevate the disorganized tornado of horror movie clichés and leaden one-liners whirling around her, and with no real base to support the film, Jennifer’s Body quickly careens into an incoherent exercise in high production values glossing over an utter lack of imagination. Fox’s co-star, Amanda Seyfried (“Big Love”), brings nothing to the table beyond some bug-eyed reaction shots, and between Fox’s limp performance and Cody’s Swiss cheese story, it’s hard to say which is the pig and which is the crappy dime-store lipstick. (Director Karyn Kusama certainly deserves to split some blame with Cody, but since Cody gets all the media play, she gets the razzberries as well.)

Jennifer’s Body offers up Fox as Jennifer, a high school vixen who still pals around with nerdy childhood friend Needy (Seyfried) despite Fox’s status as a smoking-hot cheerleader. We know Needy is a nerdette, you see, thanks to Movie Cliché #11, i.e., “hot chick + heavy-rimmed eyeglasses + unusual hair + literacy = Dorkotron 5000.” Oh, and also because her name is “Needy.” In real life Seyfried is a luscious bit of blonde honeycomb, but in the world of Jennifer’s Body she magically turns into a geek with the simple application of the sexy librarian costume from the prop department. Similarly, Fox telegraphs Jennifer’s role as the Generic Spoiled Slut through time-honored bad-girl activities such as dragging Needy to a seedy bar to seduce a skeevy musician, complaining about the painful butt sex she endured from a jock boyfriend, and bragging about the police being in her pocket because “Hello? I date a cadet.”

Although Fox does her best dead-eyed flirting with the band leader, a fire erupts in the bar before she can close the deal, killing several patrons in the conflagration. In the confused aftermath, Jennifer is abducted for a Satanic ritual after a mix-up leads to her being mistaken for a virgin. Jennifer is hardly a virgin, of course, which botches the sacrifice and allows a succubus demon to possess her body (not to mention leading to the clever title). The demon sets out to satisfy its ravenous hunger by chewing the viscera out of several local high school boys. From there it’s up to Needy, aided by her dorky, good-hearted boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) to battle the supernatural force controlling Jennifer.

Jennifer’s Body contains so many bad narrative decisions and hackneyed horror gimmicks that it’s difficult to do justice to the overall product. The mistakes occur early and often as the film opens with Needy in a mental institution, immediately tipping the viewer that she survives the story. That’s an unfortunate spoiler considering her central role in the showdown with the demon controlling Jennifer. Needy then sets the stage with the lazy screenwriter’s age-old gimmick, a voiceover narrative setting up the flashback to Jennifer’s possession and subsequent rampage. From there, Jennifer’s Body rambles out of control down a long, rocky slope into oblivion.

While it should go without saying that enjoying a movie about demonic possession requires a substantial suspension of disbelief, Jennifer’s Body demands a level of credulity more consistent with decapitation. Even horror fantasies require an internal set of rules for structure and meaningful conflict, but Jennifer’s Body slogs along through a bilious cloud of clichéd horror movie tropes, slapdash continuity problems, and distracting narrative non sequiturs. For example, when Needy learns that Jennifer might be possessed, she plods through the threadbare plot device of rummaging through the library for books on the occult. This scene was already tired when last employed by Alone in the Dark’s Tara Reid (coincidentally also in sexy librarian mode), and one can’t help but be curious about why Needy’s high school library has a surprisingly comprehensive collection of literature on ritual sacrifice and demonic possession. Later, when Chip ignores Needy’s warnings not to attend a dance where Jennifer is likely to feed again, he makes sure to go there through a dark, foggy park by himself, despite the recent bloody disembowelments of several of his classmates. Of course, when Jennifer appears out of the mist, Chip trustingly trots off with her to a nearby ancient Roman bathhouse, complete with vines encroaching through the windows, which just happens to adjoin the school grounds.

Because Fox’s wet blanket of a demon generates absolutely zero scares, Jennifer’s Body relies mostly on el cheapo startles to generate tension, such as Jennifer showing up behind people with no warning and don’t-look-behind-that-door frights where things jump into view from off-screen. In fact, the “R” rating for Jennifer’s Body is pretty laughable given the glaring lack of anything remotely scary. The film doesn’t feel the least bit creepy, there’s no unsettling gore, and not one original twist on the genre leaks through. A powerful demon that supposedly turns its victims into “lasagna with teeth” shows off almost none of its killing prowess. Even more offensive, no one gets naked on screen, though we see enough of Megan Fox to realize that she has a surprisingly hairy back; given the unfavorable lighting and angle, the cinematographer must have been pretty sick of her shit by the time they shot that scene. The only sexual content is an awkward encounter between Needy and Chip that’s interrupted by Needy’s inexplicable vision of blood oozing through the ceiling (hello, cliché!) and one of Jennifer’s ghostly victims sitting in a chair next to her (cliché, stat!). It’s not hard to imagine Diablo Cody going back to the MPAA to beg for the credibility of an “R” rating, considering how PG-13 this whole silly thing feels.

Anyone who found the smart-alecky dialogue and quirky characters in Cody’s Juno overly precious and twee will cough up a hamburger phone over the pointless character contrivances and non-stop stream of self-consciously hipster jargon oozing through Jennifer’s Body. Fox reels off a steady patter of unconvincing slang, unironically using “freaktard” as an insult and remarking that Needy’s boyfriend “must be packing some serious pubic inches.” Later she advises a classmate that his flirting “gave [her] a wettie.” Poor J.K. Simmons reunites with Cody in an empty, throwaway role as a high school teacher who has — wait for it — a hook hand.

Let me repeat that: He has a hook where his hand should be. No explanation is offered for why he has a hook hand, nor is the hook used for any purpose in the movie other than as a cheap device to give the character an unearned off-beat feel. Amy Sedaris is also pointlessly cast as Needy’s mother, with no chance to display her talents in two short scenes, and Lance Henriksen is wasted in a tiny, uncredited cameo near the end of the movie.

Perhaps anticipating audiences’ huge collective yawn, in recent weeks Megan Fox has taken to asserting that Jennifer’s Body is a comedy. That might be an interesting theory if the film were the least bit amusing, and it’s certainly true that Jennifer’s Body desperately wants to blend the self-referential cheek of Scream with the jaundiced, absurdist’s view of high school from Heathers. The problem is that both of those films packed a great deal of substance into creative twists on genre conventions, along with dark humor, cutting dialogue, and great pacing. Jennifer’s Body has none of those elements, and the resulting turd sandwich should serve as a cautionary tale to overheated, undertalented starlets and oh-so-precious screenwriters alike: You might hide behind giant robots and a tight tee-shirt, or you might hide behind the sweet chemistry of Ellen Page and Michael Cera, but you can’t hide behind each other. We see right through you.

Ted Boynton is usually picked last for kickball, mostly because he treats it as an opportunity to lounge in the outfield with a bottle of rye and a Lone Star - there’s no “I” in “team,” but there are at least two in “inebriation.” Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected].