Script Review: Jennifer’s Body by Diablo Cody (2009)
It might surprise you to learn I didn’t hate Jennifer’s Body. I didn’t like it much, either, but it manages to eschew most of Juno’s more egregious problems with its legitimate fantastical setting (as opposed to Juno’s “people are accusing us of offering an irresponsible message, so we’re calling it a fantasy” fantastical setting). It also, despite its problems, doesn’t try to forget or ignore where the story should naturally head in favor of a sloppy, forced happy ending. It’s sloppy and forced in other areas, to be sure, and its ending is unremarkable, but Jennifer’s Body knows its role and, for the most part, lives up to it.
Here’s a brief outline of the story: plain-jane Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (I am not making up that name) is 17 and institutionalized. In voiceover, she suggests that we ought to know how she ended up in the nuthouse, which flashes back to her killing her best friend, the once-beautiful Jennifer Check who has now become some sort of unknown monster. Jennifer’s mother catches Needy in the act; she’s arrested and, eventually, hauled into the nuthouse. Of note is a song — a “soaring rock anthem” — which places twice during this opening sequence — once when Needy is dragged into solitary confinement, and again during the flashback where she’s arrested.
Needy decides to flashback even further to give context to her murder. At the ripe young age of 16, Needy and Jennifer are best friends. Needy has a geeky, awkward boyfriend named Chip (so reminiscent of Paulie Bleeker from Juno, Michael Cera might as well play him). Jennifer, a bit more promiscuous than Needy, wants to go to the Carousel, only music venue in their tiny town (Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota), to see a band called Soft Shoulder. Jennifer thinks the lead singer is hot. Needy doesn’t want to go, particularly, but she does because they’re best friends.
The Carousel is a shithole where they run into various other schoolmates and townspeople — including the cop who will eventually arrest Needy — and a foreign exchange student who is always referred to as “Ahmet the Indian.” The band takes the stage. They’re decent but nothing special, yet somehow, even needy thinks they look really cool onstage. Jennifer wants to become a groupie and tries to rope Needy into it, but Needy will have none of it. Nikolai Wolf, the lead singer, approaches Jennifer right away and invites her to their van. Needy overhears him talking with the other bandmates about only wanting Jennifer because she’s a virgin. Needy warns her, but Jennifer scoffs.
Jennifer’s about to follow Nikolai and the others out when an abrupt fire engulfs the club in flames. It nearly kills Jennifer, who manages to escape only because of Needy’s cunning. The fire destroys the Carousel and kills plenty of people they know well. Needy encourages Jennifer to come home, but charismatic Nikolai Wolf pretends to be very caring and compassionate, so Jennifer goes off with him. Needy walks home alone and, while griping to Chip about what happened at the Carousel, Jennifer shows up at her house — only she’s different. Creepy, corpselike, covered in blood… She nearly attacks Needy but, instead, vomits up black bile laced with porcupine-like spines.
At school the next day, Jennifer arrives looking absolutely normal and acting like she doesn’t have a clue what happened at the Carousel. Needy’s shocked and horrified. The school holds an assembly for the student victims, which Jennifer chuckles through. Suspicious, Needy tries to tell Chip about what happened the night before and the way Jennifer’s behaving now. Chip doesn’t believe her, especially after Needy is approached by Colin Gray (a goth kid) and Chip is struck with a bit of jealousy. Out on the football field, Jennifer approaches a jock named Jonas. They go to the woods outside the school for what Jonas assumes will be sex; instead, Jennifer tears him apart and eats him.
Jennifer calls Needy to tell her how great she’s feeling, but she’s interrupted by Chip on the other line. He needs to meet her urgently. Before Needy hangs up with Jennifer, Jennifer mentions how good-looking Chip has seemed to her lately. Needy doesn’t think anything of it. She rushes off to meet Chip, who has learned of Jonas’s death (they’re next-door neighbors) and that it looks like someone ate him. Needy decides this isn’t a coincidence, and that somehow Jennifer’s involved. The next day, word has broke on a national level about the strange things going on in Devil’s Kettle. Soft Shoulder uses this for their career advantage. At school, the principal holds another assembly. Jennifer acts very apathetic, and afterward, she asks Colin Gray on a date, stirring minor concern and jealousy from Needy. Meanwhile, Needy and Chip make a date for the same time.
That night, Colin meets Jennifer in an abandoned house, where she kills and eats him. Needy, meanwhile, has awkward sex (ostensibly for the first time) with Chip. It’s interrupted by a sudden uneasy feeling and hallucinations of blood and porcupine-spiked black bile covering the walls. Freaked out, Needy decides to drive herself home, but she’s stopped in the middle of nowhere by a creepy, bloody, threatening — yet powerful — Jennifer. Needy narrowly manages to escape. In voiceover, Needy explains that she’s always been able to feel what Jennifer feels, then has a flashback-laced dream of Jennifer accidentally pricking her finger with a tack and Needy sucking out the blood, which has apparently bonded them.
Later that night, Jennifer shows up at Needy’s hosue. Needy demands to know what’s going on. Jennifer explains, and we see in flashback, what happened in Soft Shoulder’s van. They have a plan to become famous by performing strange, demonic rituals on a variety of virgins. Jennifer admits to being a virgin, even though she’s not, so the ritual doesn’t quite accomplish what they want. Rather than become a sacrifice, it leaves Jennifer strangely powerful and yet…hungry. On her way home, she almost kills Needy but, instead, vomits, runs away, and runs into Ahmet the Indian. He narrowly survived the fire, but nobody knows he made it out. Jennifer kills and eats him.
In the single worst and most unnecessary scene in the script, a group of Colin’s goth friends show up for the funeral and make stereotypical asses of themselves, followed by Colin’s mother having a shrill, entitled freak-out on par with Allison Janney bitching out the ultrasound technician in Juno. When Needy arrives at school, Chip reminds Needy about the upcoming turnabout dance. Needy shows Chip research she’s done on Jennifer. She’s identified the ritual Soft Shoulder tried to perform on her and learned that, if it’s not performed on a virgin, “the result may still be attained, but a demon will forever reside the soul of the victim. She must forever feed on flesh to sustain the demon.” Yeah, I think there’s at least one missing word in that explanation, but it still doesn’t make much sense to me. Alas…
Chip still doesn’t believe Needy and insists on turning the course of the conversation to turnabout apparel. That evening, Needy gets into her dress — a self-conscious throwback to poofy, ’80s-style dresses — and heads off for the dance. So does Chip, but along the way he’s stopped by Jennifer, who tells him that Needy has been fooling around with Colin for months and is taking his death extremely hard — so hard, Jennifer fears Needy’s going insane. She tells Chip some of the things Needy has supposedly been saying, and they line up with Needy’s “crazy” theory about Jennifer, so Chip’s inclined to believe this. Jennifer claims to be upset, but from this experience, she’s realized how much she cares for Chip. She takes him to a public pool, where he thinks they might have sex. Needy, meanwhile, rushes to Chip’s house to find out where he is. When his mother tells Needy that he walked, she traces the route and figures they’re at the pool. Needy tries to kill Jennifer but can’t — Jennifer kills Chip and flees. This takes us back to where we started, with Needy slipping into Jennifer’s bedroom and murdering her, seemingly in cold blood.
In voiceover, Needy explains that if a demon bites you (as Jennifer did), you might absorb some of its powers. She has apparently developed super-strength, which she uses to escape from the mental institution. She hitchhikes a ride to nearby Madison, where she says she wants to catch a concert. The radio helpfully explains that Soft Shoulder will be playing in Madison. Fade to black.
Jennifer’s Body aspires toward horror-comedy but doesn’t quite meet either objective; it kinda meets in the middle, as “campy horror with some atrocious dialogue.” It bugged me that the few actual, funny jokes in the script get undermined by Cody’s somewhat annoying tendency to explain the jokes until they’re no longer funny. This is exemplified, obviously, by the final scene: Soft Shoulder is responsible for everything that happened, Needy never took revenge, she breaks out of the institution and wants to see a band play in Madison. We can put two and two together on that one, but no, the radio DJ has to spoonfeed us the explicit information that Soft Shoulder is playing in Madison.
The funniest joke in the script — probably the only one that made me laugh instead of rolling my eyes — came when the principal announced Soft Shoulder would be releasing a benefit single, and they would donate 3% of the profits to the families of the tragedy victims. That’s funny on its own, right? It immediately stops being funny when Cody forces Needy to point out that Soft Shoulder keeps 97% of the profits, then goes on to use the word “crass” and define it because no character in the screenplay is allowed to have any sort of intelligence that rivals or surpasses Needy, the Diablo Cody surrogate. This reminded me a lot of Juno MacGuff and pissed me off nearly as much.
Overall, though, while the script suffers from the same rhyme- and pun-based humor that ruined Juno, the dialogue didn’t strike me as quite so bad. The scene with the goths and the Grays at the funeral is, by itself, one of the worst individual scenes I’ve read in a very long time, but it’s destined to become an unfortunate DVD “bonus” feature. It has nothing to do with the plot, and it’s not even funny on the page, so I can’t imagine it making the final cut. But we don’t really get enough of characters other than Needy, Jennifer, and Chip to make apparent the glaring flaws in Cody’s dialogue style. Needy and Jennifer have a weird, alien chatter that I can kind of buy as the weird chatter of two best friends. Surprisingly, Chip’s dialogue has a different rhythm that keeps him from sounding exactly like them. Of course, each character, no matter how small, has at least one (sometimes more) “Diablo Cody” moment — where terrible, trying-too-hard-humor meets a rhyming dictionary — that threw me out of the moment. But I think it shows some writing progression, since Juno’s characters sounded indistinguishable from one another on the page (and were only distinguished in the movie by good acting and a few trimmed lines/scenes).
So the dialogue is unfunny but not as atrocious as I expected… What about the story?
Here’s where things get a little sticky… For one thing, everything I’ve read about this concept suggests that it’s something akin to “horror meets John Hughes.” Why? Because Needy wears a Pretty in Pink dress for two scenes? The high school scenes felt nothing like John Hughes’ oeuvre to me. What it resembled was a really, really bad episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (In fact, I’m pretty sure the “group of thuggish guys ritually sacrifice chicks to gain success in life” has been used in at least one episode. If not Buffy, it’s been done elsewhere. The band satire isn’t as sharp as it could be, either, so that whole subplot feels like a waste of time.) I’m sure Cody thinks this is a feminist take on horror tropes (I’ll get into that more later), but nobody has done that concept as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cody’s out of her league, big-time, and the inevitable comparisons make it suffer. I guess we’re supposed to forgive the plot’s lack of originality because it’s supposed to be a satire, but its satirical edge isn’t even as sharp as Buffy, so why bother with this movie?
The gender politics are where I point and laugh my sardonic laugh. I don’t want to read more into the script than what’s on the page, but it’s hard not to. The “feminism” undercurrent falls apart when you realize that Cody’s writing about a dynamic I’ve certainly noticed: the “hot girl/ugly girl” dynamic. I haven’t dwelled upon it or anything, but I started developing this theory in high school. Back then, not surprisingly, I did everything I could to get hot girls to go out with me, and it only happened one glorious, glorious time. Much of the time, I ended up with the hot girl’s ugly best friend. That’s the weird thing: they all have an ugly best friend. And I know “ugly” is harsh and it’s certainly an exaggeration, but it’s just more concise to say “ugly” than “slightly less attractive and moderately more annoying.”
The thing that makes it weirder and worse, though, is that the ugly best friend gets extremely jealous and angry, to the point that they’re only “in name only” friends, and they spend much of their time seething and bitching about the hot friend. I have the misfortune of knowing this because who knows who and what ugly girls bitch about more than the asshole who dates them because he thinks they might be able to make a lateral move to their hot friend. And the thing is, the ugly girls have to know this. What kind of life is that? Christ, it’s so depressing, yet it seems like such a prevalent dynamic until the friendships dissolve midway through college.
So anyway, that’s what this script is about. Jennifer is the hot girl, Needy is the ugly girl, and the emotional core underpinning the “I eat dudes” metaphor is this notion that Jennifer chews men up and spits them out, but it doesn’t cross the line until Jennifer gets catty and goes after the guys Needy likes. My possibly misguided thought on the subject is that these girls remain friends — even “in name only” — and date cast-off guys out of a deep-seated insecurity. They fear getting cut off from their hot friend’s social circle because they’d go from having guys who aren’t terribly interested to nobody. They’d go from having female friends who merely put up with them to the ones who dump buckets of pigs’ blood on them at the prom.
I’m an outside observer, so maybe I don’t have the insight. Cody’s take is probably more consistent with the feelings of the “ugly girl.” Near the end of the script, Needy has a rather preachy, on-the-nose monologue declaring Jennifer the insecure one. Now, this concept sort of worked for me, because Jennifer is also written as a total slut. I can buy hot sluts as having deep insecurities. I’d never buy those irritating hot teases as insecure, though. They know what they have, know what it can get them, and just don’t give a shit about what others think, even their best friends.
All that aside, Jennifer’s Body presents an unintentional “Malcolm X for chicks”* argument. Because at the end of the day, it’s two catty, angry, jealous women fighting among themselves. And the script actually ends with Needy finally going after the real culprits — the guys in Soft Shoulder. We never get a quality resolution to this chunk of the story, because the story chose to tell is one of woman-on-woman bitterness and rage. I have to question the feminist credibility here. Wouldn’t the message be more powerful if Needy managed to break Jennifer free of her problems by killing the members of Soft Shoulder? She does this thing for her best friend, gets through into the nuthouse for it, but she’s A-OK because of feminine solidarity? The problem, I guess, is that Cody has a bigger problem with super-hot high school girls than she does with band assholes who lure underage girls into their vans for one reason or another.
So let’s see… Weak plot, weak dialogue, weak jokes, weak theme, and three solid main characters (and a dozen or so weak supporting characters)? It’s nothing special, but I liked it more than Juno.
*Before I offend anyone else by, apparently, not making this remark clear, it goes like this: one of Malcolm X’s views was that whites had an easier time keeping black people down because blacks kept fighting among themselves. He wanted blacks to unite, rise up, and separate from white society altogether. In a similar vein, Cody’s feminist ideals suggest that she wants women to rise up against a male-dominated society, but in the end, her screenplay gets sidetracked with petty squabbling among the two female characters and doesn’t give a satisfactory resolution on the men responsible for Jennifer’s plight. [Back]