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Watch Out, Boy, She'll Chew You Up

MOVIE REVIEW
Jennifer's Body (2009)

JB-163Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

The moment when "Jennifer's Body" begins to go down in flames isn't tough to pinpoint. Jennifer, the sex-on-two-legs cheerleader played by Megan Fox, has dragged her quiet, socially-awkward B.F.F., Needy (Amanda Seyfried), to a local bar see a new indie rock band. During the band's set, an electrical fire quickly turns the venue into an inferno. The two girls manage to escape through a window; unlike its female leads, though, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody's sophomore effort is left to slowly dissolve. The film's first horror set piece, the sequence wants to evoke "Carrie"-at-the-prom nostalgia, but it's rushed and lifeless. Whereas Brian De Palma used split-screen and a palpable mean stream to his advantage back in 1976, "Jennifer's Body" director Karyn Kusama plays it safe, treating repeated shots of screaming people engulfed in flames as scary enough. It's undercooked barbecue with no dramatic meat, and an unfortunate sign of the dullness to come.

The central premise of "Jennifer's Body" — after the band's botched attempt to sacrifice Jennifer to Satan, she's turned into a boy-hungry, flesh-eating demon — is extremely wealthy, an inherently campy set-up for laughs and playful scares that Sam Raimi could slam dunk. Ms. Cody, unfortunately, barely hits the rim. Coming off of her "Juno"-backed 2007 Oscar fairy-tale ride, Ms. Cody's decision to dabble in B-grade horror is easy to applaud, which makes the vapidness of "Jennifer's Body" all the more off-putting. The "Evil Dead" poster on Needy's wall shows where Ms. Cody intended "Jennifer's Body" to go, but the film suffers from an unexpected level of restraint that her influences knew nothing about. Jennifer's skin-ripping moments are all build-up and no payoff; right when tension feels imminent, scenes abruptly end. If Juno MacGuff — that Herschell Gordon Lewis-loving lead of Ms. Cody's debut — were real, she'd groan in disappointment more times than a single hand can count. Especially when a pole is rammed through the stomach of one lady who, after looking down at the bloody hole, kills the visceral mood with, "Do you have a tampon?" Not exactly good gallows humor.

One can only imagine how badly Juno would want to swing her hamburger phone at the hokey-dialogue-spewing mouths of every character in "Jennifer's Body." The pitch-black projectile vomit coming from demonic Jennifer's voice box seems less distracting than the bulk of Ms. Cody's dialogue heard in "Jennifer's Body." Much has been made of the rapid-fire wit spoken in "Juno"; some adore it and repeat phrases such as "honest to blog," while others simply dismiss that film's words as gimmicky. Ms. Cody's unique voice served the film's lightheartedness well; here, though, clunkers like "cheese and fries!" (meaning "Jesus Christ!") and "freaktarded" both undermine the desired horror and elicit laughs at, not with.

Another free sample, providing a spin on jealousy accusations: "You're totally Jell-O! You're lime green Jell-O." If a more forced bit of dialogue appears in a film this year, it'll be sad.

In her first starring role, Ms. Fox puts her all into a two-note character (bitchy or evil), but she lacks the commanding bite needed to make Jennifer a truly complex villain. There's a shot late into "Jennifer's Body" where she's seated in front of a mirror, smearing makeup in her face and looking all kinds of anguished. As Needy soon calls to the audience's attention, the implication is that the popular beauty is really just another insecure teenager, yet nothing in the script prior to this quasi-reveal provides the character with a sympathetic backbone. All she's been is a stuck-up hottie with a monstrous secret. The helpless-observer arch given to Needy is much stronger, and Ms. Seyfried — mostly reactive here, yet believably so – brings more to the film as a result.

"Jennifer's Body" flirts with the notion of turning the unlikely cheerleader-nerd friendship into its biggest plot point, emphasized by a sudden make-out session between Mses. Fox and Seyfried that somehow doesn't ring gratuitous. The explanation for their lifelong bond is one of the film's most clever lines: "Sandbox love never dies." It's a bummer, then, that "Jennifer's Body" wastes most of its time switching gears toward the two halves of horror-comedy, neither of which works in the first place.

JENNIFER’S BODY

Opens on Sept. 18 in the United States and on Nov. 6 in Britain.

Directed by Karyn Kusama; written by Diablo Cody; director of photography, M. David Mullen; edited by Plummy Tucker; music by Theodore Shapiro and Stephen Barton; production designer, Arv Greywal; produced by Mason Novick, Daniel Dubiecki and Jason Reitman; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Megan Fox (Jennifer Check), Amanda Seyfried (Needy Lesnicki), Adam Brody (Nikolai), Johnny Simmons (Chip), J. K. Simmons (Mr. Wroblewski) and Amy Sedaris (Toni Lesnicki).

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