Jennifer’s body is luscious and powerful, sexy and scary, maddening at times, but impossible to stop watching. So is Jennifer’s Body (20th Century Fox), the new film directed by Karyn Kusama ( Girlfight) and written by Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for her catchphrase-laden script for Juno). The literal body in question doesn’t really belong to Jennifer; it’s on loan from Megan Fox, the Transformers phenomenon who’s never been given a chance before to be anything but a body on-screen (or on the magazine covers that she seems to have single-handedly taken over of late). The combination of the overexposed Cody, the wildly overexposed Fox, and a much-hyped girl-on-girl kissing scene didn’t augur well for this movie. Surely it was going to be a snarky, schticky mashup of Twilight and Girls Gone Wild. Instead, Kusama and Cody’s collaboration is a wicked black comedy with unexpected emotional resonance, one of the most purely pleasurable movies of the year so far.
To quote Courtney Love (whose song “Jennifer’s Body” gave the movie its title and whose music plays over the closing credits), Jennifer Check is the girl with the most cake. Outlandishly gorgeous and unapologetically sexual, she’s the unchallenged alpha female of the local high school in the podunk town of Devil’s Kettle, Minn. Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) has been Jennifer’s best friend since childhood—as she tells us in the opening voice-over, “sandbox love never dies.” Jennifer pushes the mousy Needy around, upstages her, torments her—and needs her desperately, if only for companionship on ill-advised excursions like a trip to a local roadhouse to see a self-important emo band called Low Shoulder. A freak fire destroys the bar and most of the people in it, but Jennifer and Needy escape the inferno. Still in shock, Jennifer allows the creepy lead singer (Adam Brody, hilariously channeling the Killers’ Brandon Flowers) to drive her home in his van.
That’s the last time Needy will ever see her friend alive, but it takes her a while to figure out that the bloodstained wreck who shows up at her door later that night is something other than Jennifer. What exactly that something is, we’re never quite sure. Jennifer’s new incarnation has elements of both vampiredom and zombiehood. In one of those occult-section research montages that no B-movie should be without, Needy comes upon a handy guide that identifies her as a “succubus.” Whatever Jennifer has become, she’s scary as all hell, sprouting fangs to feed on human flesh one minute and reverting back to her Delia’s-clad cheerleader self the next.
To enter into the spirit of Jennifer’s Body, you have to let go of your preconceived notions of Diablo Cody, whether for good or ill. If you’re looking for the gentle indie spirit of Juno, you’ll be disappointed—this isn’t a world in which abortion protesters make their case with twee observations about baby fingernails, and getting pregnant at 15 is nothing a Moldy Peaches song can’t cure. Life at Devil’s Kettle High is nasty, brutish, and short, especially for Jennifer’s male victims (who aren’t necessarily sexist jerks—one of the movie’s strengths is its refusal to be read as a straight-up feminist revenge story).
If, on the other hand, Juno’s preciousness made you gag, you shouldn’t write off Jennifer’s Body, either. True, Cody’s mania for catchphrases hasn’t faded—Needy and Jennifer greet each other with rhymed putdowns along the lines of “Where’s it at, Monistat?”—but she’s learning to channel the more egregious lingo into the mouths of characters who might actually talk that way. In Jennifer’s Body, the principal perpetrator of Codyisms is Jennifer herself, which makes perfect sense. Proving one’s social worth by spouting insider slang is a mark of insecurity, and for all her sexual bravado, Jennifer is nothing if not insecure. Megan Fox, whose previous roles called on little more than her ability to successfully straddle a motorcycle, nails this tricky role. She does more than look sensational—she shows us what it feels like to be a sensational-looking young woman and to wield that as your only power. Fox seems to understand the key gambit of Cody’s script: Her character is less a teenage girl turned monster than an exploration of the monster that lurks inside every teenage girl.
Amanda Seyfried is no less pitch-perfect as the terrorized best friend Needy (though that character name is an unfortunate symptom of Cody’s still-unconquered tendency to hammer home her points too hard). In one particularly effective scene, Kusama cross-cuts between Jennifer’s gory cannibalization of a schoolmate and Needy losing her virginity with her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons). What makes this parallel editing work is that Needy and Chip’s encounter is played completely straight—no clever quips, no high drama, just a boy and girl having awkward, stammering first-time sex. When the camera cuts to Jennifer slurping up her victim’s organs, we get a glimpse of Jennifer’s sexual self-confidence from Needy’s point of view, as both nightmarish and weirdly enviable. She may be snacking on her date’s liver, but she’s eating her best friend from the inside out.
The movie’s climax, in which Needy attempts to save Chip from Jennifer’s bloodthirsty clutches at the school dance, is a bold but not completely successful attempt to blend horror, suspense, and comedy; it’s as if Carrie were being re-enacted by the cast of Heathers. But ultimately Jennifer’s Body functions best as an allegory about female friendship, with all its attendant cross-currents of envy, competition, loyalty, and betrayal. By the last scene, we’ve been through all manner of undead mayhem, but when Needy rips off Jennifer’s heart-shaped BFF pendant and hurls it to the ground, you know things are really getting serious.