Thursday, May 3, 2018

Theory Thursday: "Jennifer's Body" is Underrated

Scene from Jennifer's Body
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Tully is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Jennifer's Body is underrated.

I feel like it bears repeating every time that she releases a new movie: Diablo Cody is underrated. I have probably written enough articles to fill a novella based around that subject, and her latest film Tully looks to be a nice return to form, producing a spiritual sequel to Juno that will hopefully be just as enjoyable, iconic, and lasting. The sentiment, to most, probably reads as farce. Are we talking about the Diablo Cody who used to write dialogue like "This is one doodle that can't be undid, homeskillet," THAT Diablo Cody? Well, yes. I could write a lengthy defense of Juno and how its selective language cues reflect its own form of maturity. However, I am wanting to explore something grander about her work as a writer, which has become a highlight every 2-3 years.

What she brings to the table, and is only now getting positive feedback by studios nowadays, is that she's inherently interested in stories of complicated women. Not in the biopic way where Norma Rae solves a union crisis, but how women exist in the bigger world. You can look at Juno's controversial view of pregnancy; Young Adult's view of stunted growth (one of the few to be effectively seen from a woman's standpoint; or even Ricki and the Flash's mother-daughter bonding. Cody has an impressive career for a woman who got unfairly labeled a hipster writer in 2007 and to some hasn't shaken that moniker just yet, even if she's proven herself several times over at this point. Tully looks to be the next logical step, showing the complexity of motherhood that she has in fact gone through. It's likely to be personal, and possibly with the eclectic dialogue that makes her work so effective.

So the question becomes: what could I possibly have to say about Cody in 2018? Yes, she is underrated. Yes, Charlize Theron's best performance was in Young Adult. It's all material that I've covered before. So, I decided to look at the one black sheep of her resume that has gotten a fair amount of reassessment over the past decade (sorry, Paradise. I'm sure I'm the only one who kinda likes the effort). Jennifer's Body was her sophomore script and one that came amid a certain kind of backlash. There was the Cody hipster comments, as well as the belief that Megan Fox was a bad actress after a string of critically panned Transformers movies. The movie didn't have much going for it, especially since it was more ribald, graphic horror that couldn't be more different than her Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno. It would be different, that's about all that people could agree on with the box office failure.

It's easy to see why the film didn't do well initially. However, there's something intriguing about Cody's work once you add age to them. Again, they're all about complicated women: a topic that's still a bit hard for Hollywood to back. So to have an It Girl play a sassy, dominant high school teenager who murders men seemed a bit silly. After all, horror movies aren't meant to be taken seriously (at least it was believed at the time). This would be pulpy (it was), and that would be it. What the audience failed to do was absorb the film underneath the core and the faux-lesbianism between Fox and co-star Amanda Seyfried. It wasn't just a film about scares from director Karyn Kusama (who has since gotten more notice with The Invitation). It was about the struggles of high school.

Sure, maybe Cody doing a high school movie after Juno seemed a little obvious. However, the approach was vastly different. It would have an uncomfortable sense of judgment, by which Fox would constantly be ogled while Seyfried would explore her personal relationship to the popular girl. There's plenty of mental asylum imagery, supernatural motifs, and a general sense of dread. It was a film that felt organic to a town hidden in the woods where Chris Pratt could be seen at a bar. It's a mystical land in a way, and its close-knit structure makes the pressures of being beloved all the more hard. What's the point of being pretty, being lusted after by men? It plays as a revenge film for a girl who just wants to be herself but becomes a monster by peer pressure.

If nothing else, it was interesting to see Cody play with tone. It was dark, still featuring her penchant stylized language. It played disjointedly with the horror at times, but it presented a vision of insecurity in high school that felt real. Seyfried's arc of trying to find the normality in Fox is impeccable. It's not just one character who goes on an interesting journey, but two women who approach the high school experience differently. In some ways they are based in tropes, but they also are surrounded by one of the most unique towns of the time. People drive around to Screeching Weasel covers of "I Can See Clearly Now." The punks don't feel as manufactured as most Hollywood films. It's an oddity of sorts given what Cody has done since then that this film has a cynical streak that grabs the viewer and throws them into the violence and sexuality headfirst. There's nothing more complicated than expressing yourself sexually, and Cody has found a way to make it horrifying.

What should also be noted is that Fox ended up getting a bad rap from the Michael Bay movies. Where she was seen as shrill, she's actually a far more interesting performer with the right source material. She can deliver a deadpan humor in a way that's disaffected but convincing from the hot girl role. She subverts is, even as Seyfried plays a nebbish, insecure friend who is reserved while narrating the story, observing as if one of the gossips in Mean Girls - but in a horror movie. The cast is pretty strong for the most part and produces a film that may be a bit too disturbing for general audiences, baffling for others, but is so assured of painting women not as victims but as heroes and failures in their own lives. Cody's body of work shows this time again, and I feel like it doesn't get enough credit. Maybe Young Adult is the only film of hers that has escaped the reputation. Still, Jennifer's Body has more going for it if enjoyed as a genuine, dark horror movie where the conflicts are internal but come to the surface in sick mutations. 

To her credit, I think that Fox has done a decent career revamp in the years since. Her work on Friends With Kids and This Is 40 reflect a performer who just needs the right cast to deliver something great. Much like Kristen Stewart, there's a good chance that she won't ever escape the legacy bestowed upon her by a mediocre franchise (and how could it not since the films have grossed billions and have won half as many Razzies). Still, this is likely to remain a sore spot in Cody's career, in part because it followed Juno and was by a writer who was already pegged as a one hit wonder. The issue is that exploring the psychology of women in horror was taboo at the time, and to make it quite as vulgar and bizarre wasn't likely to gain mainstream appeal. It was a great movie because it showed how tough high school was. Maybe it was just unfortunate that it was Cody's second movie in a row featuring stylized dialogue.

I can only hope that Tully is another great movie in a career largely full of them. I think that Cody has an impeccable gift and is worthy of a deeper praise for her authentic approach to characters. While some writers vary on subjects, she has made a valiant effort to make films about characters that don't often get the treatment. Who would care about Tully and the struggles of motherhood? Likewise, who would care about Jennifer's Body and the struggles women face from peer pressure? There's something honest and vulnerable about her writing that allows it all to be beautiful and real, even when the dialogue sounds unnatural. She's a writer who works on many levels, making every twisted phrase have something deeper to say about the characters and life in general. Jennifer's Body in particular has a lot to say in striking ways. It may not be the most accessible horror movie of the decade, but it definitely solidified just how much Cody cared about making stories her way. 

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