The Motion/Captured Review: 'Jennifer's Body' is bloody, sexy good fun
It's been a long strange first day in Toronto, so thank god the Ryerson theater turns out to be about four minutes walk from my hotel. Between here and there is a pizza joint called The Big Slice which is far more NY pizza than anything we have in LA. I grabbed a slice and a big Diet Pepsi, and those should keep me going long enough for a recap of the day in general and the film tonight in particular.
I'll have a review of "The Invention Of Lying" up later in the festival, once it's made its public debut. Until then, ettiquette demands that I stay mum on my opinion. I saw that at 7:00 at the National Film Board screening room. That is apparently nine thousand miles from anywhere else, because when some friends asked me to come join them for food after the film and texted to tell me they were "very close," they evidently forgot that I am from LA, where we don't even walk from one room to the other. Forty-five minutes from the NFB to Bloor Street wasn't a huge deal, of course... but when I tried to leave to make it to "Jennifer's Body," I totally screwed up and tried to take the subway. I managed to catch the wrong train and go way in the wrong direction, only to have to take a $20 cab ride back across town, where I learned that the Ryerson theater is right next to my hotel. Color me stupid.
Still, I managed to make it just before the film began, and I found a seat in the balcony, settling in and trying to relax. I hate it when I carry a bad mood into the theater with me, and being in a strange town and stressing out is one of the quickest ways to knock me out of my comfort zone. So when the film started, I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to give it a fair shot. I liked the introduction by Colin Geddes, grand poobah of Midnight Madness here at the festival, and it was fun watching Jason Reitman, Mason Novick, Diablo Cody, Amanda Seyfried, and Megan Fox enjoy a bit of the spotlight before the film started. When the 20th Century Fox logo finally hit the screen, I told myself to relax and just tune everything else out.
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I didn't need to worry, though. I think "Jennifer's Body" is actually an original, funny, and smart horror film, and what it demonstrates most clearly to me is the difference between someone writing a horror film because they genuinely love the genre and its potential or someone writing a horror film because they're "hot." In her introductory comments, director Karyn Kusama invoked such films as "Carrie" and "Heathers," and certainly she's made a movie that exists on a continuum with those films, but with one profound difference, one that is part of what makes "Jennifer's Body" so interesting. Those films were made by guys about teenage girls. This is a movie by women, both writing and directing, and anyone who wants to argue that Dan Waters has a better grasp on teenage girls than Cody does, or that Brian De Palma understands the psychology of high school girls better than Kusama... well, I ain't buying it. There is something to be said about writing to your own experience, and one of the reasons I consider "Jennifer's Body" to be a better-than-average example of the genre is because so much care has been paid to making these kids feel authentic.
Yes. If you're wondering if some of the dialogue is clever and poppy and slangy, a la "Juno," the answer is "yes." But the next time I hear someone say that it's not true to real life, I'd like to introduce them to a few genuinely bright teenagers. It's so condescending to say that no high schooler could be clever, or no high schooler would engage in the sort of word play that Cody likes, or to say that there are no high schoolers who are this well-versed in pop culture. It's just inaccurate. Of course kids today are soaked in pop culture... what do you think makes up much of their world view? We're not talking about world travelers here... we're talking about kids who mainline media in a way that previous generations simply couldn't. I actually think Cody's toned down a lot of what people found grating in "Juno," not that she needed to, in favor of more organic character humor. And beyond that, she's written a film that is very wise in the way real kids behave with each other. There's a pretty great sequence in the middle of the film where Needy (Seyfried) and her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) are making love while across town, Jennifer (Fox) is busy eating her latest victim, using sex as a snare. The contrast between what's going on with the two characters isn't just to give us little teasing glimpses of skin, as it is is so much horror. Instead, it's a way of really making these kids into recognizable people. There's a sweet, gentle tone to the scenes with Needy and Chip, and his line, "Am I too big?" is laugh-out-loud hilarious when you see it in context.
I also like that the horror elements in the film aren't immediately obvious. The film takes its time setting everything in motion, and at no point does it feel like it's rushing to get to gore or to empty scares. Instead, everything is grounded in the experiences of Needy, who narrates the film from inside a mental hospital after everything's already happened. She goes with her BFF Jennifer to see a band called Low Shoulder play a local gig at a shitty bar. There's an awful Great White-style fire in the bar, and almost everyone is killed. Jennifer and Needy escape, though, and then the band rushes Jennifer away, convinced she's a virgin. The next time Needy sees her friend, something awful has obviously happened to her, and only time reveals what that was, and what Jennifer has become as a result.
Nothing about the film will work for you if you don't buy Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried as the light and the darkness, and while Seyfried's been working for a while, building a credible career of character roles, Fox has been a critical punching bag since she made her starring debut in "Transformers." Trying to judge how good an actor is by the work they do in a Michael Bay film is like trying to judge the taste of food by listening to someone cook it on the radio. I think Fox reveals herself here as a fairly canny manipulator of her own image, and she and Seyfried both play their parts to exactly the right impact. Johnny Simmons is also quite good here as the nice guy boyfriend who doesn't believe his girlfriend when she warns him about the evil that's taken control of her friend. And Adam Brody has a small role as the lead singer of Low Shoulder, but he wrings every bit of juice out of it, and you should stay till the end of the credits so you can enjoy everything he did in the film.
Technically, the film looks sensational, and Kusama has a real way with the big image here. She's not afraid to let a quiet moment play, and she's also not above going for reality over the cheap scare. As a result, this doesn't feel like every other horror film these days. It's about as far from the aesthetic of the "Saw" films or the Platinum Dunes remakes as it can be while still being considered a movie. It's a potent cocktail of humor, horror, and real human observation, and it's one of the bigger surprises I've had in the theater this year. Say what you will about it, and I'm sure some people will intensely dislike it, but "Jennifer's Body" is sincere, and it feels like the work of people who were out to make something that honors the genre, and doesn't just cash in on it. I'll happily celebrate that anytime.
I have to be at a brutally early screening of the new film by the Coen Bros, so I'm off to bed for a two hour nap. Still, I'm glad to be in Toronto, and here's hoping every day this next week is as interesting as today was.
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