Friday, November 19, 2010

Jennifer's (and Megan's) Body

I was really prepared to like Jennifer's Body for a multitude of reasons, mixed reviews or not (and that's mixed, meaning mixed, not bad). It's a teen girl horror flick penned by Diablo Cody straight off her Oscar win for Juno, and directed by Karyn Kusama who helmed Girlfight (which I haven't seen, but about which I've heard good things) and Aeon Flux (which was awful). It stars Amanda Seyfried, who I've always liked and Megan Fox, who I thought I'd never seen in anything, but I was wrong, as she had a small part in the Lindsey Lohan vehicle Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. Which I've seen. Don't judge.

That said, all I know about Ms. Fox is what I've gleaned from the internets over the past few years. Most of this can be summed up thusly:
  1. She's great looking.
  2. She says lots of boneheaded things to reporters and on talk shows.
  3. She's in a long term relationship with (now married to) Brian Austin Green who played David Silver on 90210.
  4. My friend's teenage daughter and her friends adore her (she's soooo fuckin hottttt).
  5. People on the internets seem pretty contemptuous and hateful towards her, and I can't quite seem to figure out why.
Back to the film. Ms. Cody's script has a lot going for it, but it feels a little half baked. The beginning is terrific: the film is book-ended with scenes of Amanda Seyfried in a maximum security women's prison. It's shot beautifully (if with a few too many teal/orange clichés for my taste) and starts off creepily enough and has us wondering what could have turned sweet-faced Seyfried into a killer. We then flashback to Devil's Kettle High School, where pretty cheerleader Megan Fox (Jennfier) is BFF with dorky Amanda Seyfried (Needy. No, really. That's the character's name). Even before any of the violent supernatural goings on that we see later in the film, Jennifer and Needy seem somehow psychically linked, almost too close. Needy's sweet boyfriend thinks (rightly) that Jennifer is using and manipulating Needy. Jennifer is a classic mean girl who seems to require Needy to follow in her wake like some sort of wide eyed terrier. What both the movie and Fox do pretty well is show that Jennifer seems to need Needy as much as Needy needs Jennifer. It's an unhealthy, nearly parasitic, uneven, symbiotic friendship.

Megan Fox is a beautiful girl and is talked about in the gutter press as if she was a major movie star. But she's only appeared in six films so far (with a couple more in the can waiting for release). Six. She shot to fame after appearing in the first Transformers movie and after appearing in various states of sexiness in every men's magazine the world over. She also has an extremely well documented case of verbal diarrhea which makes her a completely entertaining interview. After reading a slew of Megan Fox articles over the past couple of days and taking a look at her TMZ coverage from the past couple of years, a couple of things became immediately apparent. Unlike many young starlets, she seems to have a really good bead on both the nature of her job (being a sexy young starlet) and the pluses and minuses of this particular line of employment. The other is that she has the most shockingly boring private life of any sexy young starlet since the job was invented.

Jennifer and Needy wind up in the local shit kicker bar to see a band, Low Shoulder, that Jennifer heard about on YouTube. Before talking to the cute lead singer (Adam Brody from The OC) Jennifer is all trash talking teen girl expounding to Needy that they have boobs, hence all the power. And then after confidently striding up to Brody she... melts. She's a little nervous and stammery the way girls are when they talk to Older Boys. Needy thinks they're bad news, but Jennifer is smitten. Cute! In a band! From the city! Needy is very, very protective of Jennifer, correctly thinking that her heedlessness could lead her into real trouble. While watching the band, the bar explodes into flames. It is hinted at, but never confirmed, that something telekinetic may be at play. The girls escape through the bathroom window, and run into the lead singer in the parking lot, while surrounded by burn victims and screams. He convinces Jennifer to come with him in the band's van. Needy knows this is a terrible idea and tries to talk Jennifer out of it, but she goes. Now, I have to say I really liked how this was handled even if they took a play straight out of the Buffy handbook. What I mean is, we as audience members are truly frightened for Jennifer. The ways in which this could go badly for her are manifold. When we next see Jennifer, she's a monster. Or so Needy thinks. We don't know what's happened to her, or what she is, but she's covered in blood and she's just... wrong. Up til now the movie has been pretty terrific. This, though, is where things start to fall apart.

Oh, Megan Fox. If there's any young starlet in need of a good gender studies class, it's her. I'm just worried everyone from the professor to the other students would be mean to her, as in some ways she's a perfect object lesson in four inch heels. And when I say she's in need of a good gender studies class, I do so because she is clearly fascinated with the ramifications of gender and sexuality as they pertain to both her working life and the world at large. She talks about it all the time in her interviews in a way I've almost never heard before from someone who is in her particular position. Megan Fox is equal parts intelligent and inarticulate, which causes some problems. The following are some quotes:

It's a double standard. To be outspoken, or different at all, is a problem for women. As soon as you curse or, God forbid, make some sort of sexual reference that's a joke, you're labeled a party girl. They don't do that with men, so I feel it would be a lot easier.

When I go to a party, I always feel like I'm chum.
Like my agent is just chumming the waters until I'm circled by all these dudes.

I don't trust male intentions, usually, because they don't approach me for intellectual conversation.

If you know how to take control of being a sex symbol, then it can be powerful. But I have no idea how to handle it yet, how to deal with it.

Hollywood is the most superficial thing you could possibly be a part of and if I weren't attractive I wouldn't be working at all.

I personally always find something really scary about watching little girls learning to manipulate their dads by baby talking. Then they grow up and use the same technique on their boyfriends or husbands. That scares me because it's just so sick on so many levels.

Little girls are very much exposed to sexuality through the media and the entertainment industry and advertisements. So when you realize that you have the same power that you've watched women who've come before you have, it is frightening and you don't know what to do with it. I don't think you ever get comfortable with it.

And there's pages more. She's clearly given this stuff a lot of thought, but doesn't quite know what to do with it. In interviews, she actually most often sounds like a regular person, which I didn't realize was so unusual until I realized that the current crop of actors and actresses sound like crazy people. She talks about being lonely. She talks about smoking weed and watching movies. She makes dumb jokes. Sometime she's annoying. Sometimes she sounds bored. Sometimes she's engaging. There's also, by many, or most of the journalists who interview her a "Look! It talks! Just like an actual person!" attitude that must be maddening (although Fox claims she doesn't read her own press, as it would make her crazy). She also complains about her job the way normal people do. Unfortunately (for her), she tells these things to the press, rather than her friends (of which, she claims, she has none), so she gets into all kinds of trouble.

The second act of Jennifer's Body is a mess. We see too much of what Jennifer has become too quickly, sort of destroying suspense. The idea of this pretty cheerleader being a monster and literally devouring boys is very potent and full of potential. But the thematic, horror and plot elements never really come together. The boys Jennifer kills seem arbitrary. The direction seems a little lazy during some of it - oh, and can we please retire the sexy slo-mo babe walk down the hallway at school? It's the biggest cliché ever at this point. We get it. She's hot. That's why you hired the actress you did. Duh. So I feel like I did a lot of waiting around for the climax. Also, there seemed to be something a little off about the tone of the film and the performances. Pitch black horror comedies are really, really difficult to make. Diablo Cody's dialogue is fairly mannered. This wasn't a problem in Juno as director Ivan Reitman had such strong control of the material. He had everyone play it pretty straight with as much emotional truth as possible. Any sort of wackiness or artificiality in the performances would just push it over the edge. I think that's a bit of what happens here. Fox isn't great, but it looks to me as if she's been poorly directed. Pros like J.K. Simmons and Amy Sedaris aren't terrific either. I thought the best performance in the film was from the kid who played Needy's boyfriend. I have a feeling Kusama wasn't paying enough attention to her actors.

I guess what I find so interesting is the extraordinary amount of animosity felt towards this young woman. She was recently fired from the Transformers franchise for mouthing off in the press. In an interview, she compared her director, Michael Bay to both Napoleon and Hitler. This was, to say the least, unwise. She had also been quoted saying some things that might be construed as unflattering to the Transformers franchise (they also might be construed as true) such as finding the plot of the second film to be garbled and confusing, that the stunt work was unsafe, that her own performance wasn't very good, that she doesn't understand how anyone could watch the IMAX version without having an aneurysm. So her option was not renewed. She's clearly a little enchanted with her own outspokenness, but I found (something she also seems aware of) that when watching her in televised interviews it's pretty clear that most of what she's saying is meant to be self-deprecating and are said with far more good humor than is perceived when read. But the most risible thing that I saw being brought up again and again vis a vis Fox, was the question of whether she was promiscuous, or a slut. From what I can gather, this is constantly brought up because of Fox's appearance and because she often appears in mens magazines in her underwear (Fox doesn't do nudity). There is literally zero scandal attached to her personal life. I couldn't find a single photograph of her out in a nightclub or a party, barring things that are clearly work related events. Interestingly, people like Reese Witherspoon and Hilary Swank have much more active dating lives than Fox, but the perception of them as "good girls" somewhat protects them from the truly ugly smears Fox has been subject to. Really, Perez Hilton needs to go away forever.

In the last act, Jennifer's Body picks up again. The climax is satisfying and the coda ties it together nicely. And the end credit sequence is kind of brilliant. But, over all, the film didn't work for me. I don't quite get what I'm supposed to take away from the film. Instead of being gang raped, as we feared, the indie rock band sacrifice Jennifer in exchange for fame and fortune. The catch is that they are supposed to sacrifice a virgin, and small town bombshell Jennifer is anything but, so instead of remaining dead, she becomes a demon. She's portrayed as a mass of foul mouthed insecurities that has a hard time saying no to boys. Her becoming a ravenous demon is so potentially interesting. As I wrote in my Ginger Snaps post, our culture is deeply uncomfortable with sexually aggressive woman (to quote Ms. Fox: "men are scared of a strong, confident vagina"), and if Jennifer's hunger sprung out of need, rather than a vague free floating animosity, it could have been really great.

Here's what I want for Megan Fox: I think she should take a few acting classes and find somebody she can learn from that she can trust. She needs some chops. She said in one of the interviews I read, that people's expectations of her are so low, she's bound to impress. She has also disparaged her own ability again and again, saying that she hasn't done anything, how could she be any good yet? I don't know that I find the woman herself all that terribly fascinating, but seeing how the world reacts to her is. And I like the fact that she cheerfully reports the stupidities that are heaped upon her in Hollywood to all and sundry. I also like that she seems in no danger of meeting any kind of Marilyn Monroe/Lindsey Lohan/Brittney Murphy like fate. Her personal life seems almost comically boring. I think she's a big enough deal that TMZ and the other stalkers feel the need to keep watch, but they are pretty much reduced to reports like "Megan Fox Has Weird Thumbs" (I'm not making this up, there's pages of it). "Megan Fox going the the dentist." "Megan Fox takes her dog to vet! Pictures inside!" "Megan Fox Grocery Shops!" Then, of course, was the excitement of her honeymoon. She went to the beach. She looked happy. Hollywood is a weird, weird place and being a starlet is a weird job. Fox seems to take all of it with pretty good humor. She's been somewhat painted as a baby-Angelina, and there are worse things for her to be, certainly.


miconian said...

Fox may have only starred in six films, but James dean only starred in three, and he's still bigger than she will ever be. But there were fewer stars back then.

Caviglia said...

Um, okay. Apples, oranges.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

"if Jennifer's hunger sprung out of need, rather than a vague free floating animosity, it could have been really great."

I think that's a running problem with a lot of these revenge-of-the-lady pictures---the need for girl-power wish-fulfillment overwhelms psychological realism. For a movie like this, (male) producers and (female) writers and (female) directors alike are thinking "Hot girl killing mean boys! Girls will love it!" And no one wants to spoil their revenge fantasy by making the killer girl *actually* crazy, or vulnerable, or worse yet, needing male attention or (blech!) love. If the movie had gone farther with the revelation of Jennifer's insecurity in the early scene at the club, and maintained that throughout her demonhood, it could've been a much deeper, sadder, and even less commercially successful flick, something closer to May than to I Spit On Your Grave.

And yeah, miconian is totally right about six feature films being enough to be a movie star, especially considering that magazines are as much or more what makes someone a Hollywood star. Besides Dean's three, Julia Roberts starred four by the time Pretty Woman made her the biggest star in Hollywood, Jessica Alba was at six by Sin City (and she was a major draw by the time Sin City came out, mostly through modeling), Pirate of the Caribbean was Keira Knightly's sixth feature, and Kate Winslet was at six when she made Titanic. Some, like Angelina Jolie, do the traditional gradual rise, but these days a fast catapult to stardom is standard. The hard part is longevity---lot's of this-years-girls come and go, but we'll see if Fox has the good taste and the smart agent to make a longer career possible.