In addition to becoming one of those increasingly rare combinations of critical darling and box office smash, the indie comedy Juno managed the even rarer feat of catapulting its first time screenwriter Diablo Cody into a limelight most Hollywood writers never find themselves in the glare of. With her jet black Louise Brooks bob, Cody even looks the part to be Hollywood’s current “It” girl. While it is true that Cody’s rather unorthodox road to Hollywood makes for great gist for the tabloid entertainment mills, it was her razor sharp dialogue that caught critics’ ears and propelled her to the seemingly inevitable Best Original Screenplay Academy Award win.
When I reviewed Juno, I mentioned that there is an urge to draw parallels between Cody and other notable writers of stylized dialogue like Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino. I don’t think that at the time I wrote that I fully realized the implications of what I was saying. While both writer/directors made substantially different films, they both faced the same potential pitfalls when it came to producing their second feature films. Tarantino’s follow up to his Reservoir Dogs debut was Pulp Fiction, an extension of the dialogue skills he had already demonstrated in his previous film. Smith, on the other hand, followed up his critically acclaimed comedy Clerks with the somewhat disappointing Mallrats. True, while Mallrats has its admirers amongst Smith’s fans, myself included, it is still considered a somewhat lesser effort from the director, a film that did not exactly fulfill the potential promised in Clerks. Fortunately, Smith was able to repair his reputation with critics with his next film, Chasing Amy.
For me, this is the fork in the road where Cody stands; the September 20, 2007 dated draft of her second film, the horror/dark-comedy Jennifer’s Body, in hand. Unfortunately, as the draft stands, it leans more towards Mallrats than Pulp Fiction. However, with a judicious rewrite, Cody could very well reverse that.
The film opens on Anita “Needy” Lesnicki, a rather ordinary 17-year old girl, except for the fact that she is currently incarcerated in a mental institution for having killed her best friend, Jennifer. After this four and a half page introduction, we flashback to the night she snuck into her best friend’s bedroom and brutally stabbed her with a box cutter.
However, something about the attack seems wrong. Needy’s voiceover tells us that Jennifer’s gaunt look isn’t normal for the girl, that “she was the prettiest girl in Devil’s Kettle when she wasn’t so… hungry.” As Needy bursts into Jennifer’s room, she screams at her for killing someone named Chip. Jennifer, for her part, almost seems unconcerned about the attack, chiding Needy “Do you buy all your murder weapons at Home Depot?” The two struggle for a moment before they supernaturally fly up and crash against the room’s ceiling and then fall back down. Needy plunges the cutter into Jennifer’s heart and the teen girl dies in a geyser of blood. In the aftermath of the attack, while Jennifer’s mother sobs hysterically over her dead daughter, Needy seems unperturbed, declaring to the arriving police that she had “just saved every guy in this town from becoming Satan chow.”
To find out what Needy means, she, as her narration continues through the script, flashes us back another two months, to the beginning of the school year in the town Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota. (“Come See What’s Cookin’!” advises the sign welcoming visitors to the one stoplight town.) Here we discover that Needy is a bit of a bookworm, yet somehow is friends with the popular and pretty Jennifer, and has been all of their lives. We also meet Chip, Needy’s not very bright, but at least well-meaning, boyfriend. One Thursday evening Jennifer takes Needy to the town’s only bar for an all ages show by indie rock band Soft Shoulder, whose singer is, in Jennifer’s words, “extra salty.”
At the show, Jennifer introduces herself the band’s lead singer, the improbably named Nikolai Wolf. Flirting with the singer, she acts the virginal, star struck girl, though Needy knows she is anything but virginal. When Jennifer goes to the bar to buy Nikolai a drink, Needy overhears him talking with another band member about how the “virgin” is just who they are looking for. Needy tries to warn Jennifer that the band seems to have some vaguely nefarious plans in mind, but Jennifer brushes her concerns aside.
As the band begins their set, a fire breaks out in the bar. While most of the bar patrons stampede towards the doors, causing a bottleneck from which not many escape, Jennifer and Needy make it out through a bathroom window. Outside the burning bar, they run into Nikolai and the rest of the band who seem unconcerned that all of their equipment just went up in flames. Against Needy’s continued advice, Jennifer, who is now a bit drunk on some peach schnapps provided by Nikolai, hops into the band’s van and drives off, leaving Needy to walk home.
Needy makes it home and calls Chip to tell him what happened. As she is recounting the horrible events of the fire, Jennifer shows up, covered in blood. Needy tries to get her to tell her what happened, but Jennifer merely vomits a vile black substance up all over herself and Needy before running out the door and disappearing into the night. The next day, Jennifer claims to remember nothing of the night’s events, acting her usual self and unconcerned that others had died in the fire.
But Jennifer is not the girl she was before going to the bar as becomes apparent when she lures a member of the football team out into the woods behind the school under the pretext of some carnal consolation. Once alone, though, Jennifer transforms, jaws going impossibly wide, and attacks the jock killing him and scattering his internal viscera about the trees. Not realizing her friend’s connection to the football player’s death, Needy feels that it and the fire happening within 24 hours is no coincidence and begins to investigate. However, as another mutilated teenage boy’s body is discovered, Needy begins to suspect the worst about her best friend and realizes that she may have to resort to fatal action to stop her.
The stylized dialogue that Cody employs here is a tricky beast, and lies at the heart of the problems with the Jennifer’s Body script. While every line in Juno felt like a finely polished gem, here the results are a bit more hit and miss. When it works, it works well though. Some of the slang used between Jennifer and Needy feels like private in-jokes, things that show a personal history shared between the two. “You’re totally jello! You’re lime green jello and you can’t even admit it,” Jennifer chides Needy at one point, jello having at some past point replaced the word jealous as verbal shorthand between the two. “J.V.,” presumably standing for “Junior Varsity,” is another shorthand, standing in for childish or immature. However, for every couple of good lines like the ones above, there are obvious clunkers like “Never Trevor. I’m hot like magma” and “Please, please, you’re a social disease?”
Equally distressing is how forced some of the lines feel, as if Cody was just writing to get through one scene in order to work on the next and had forgotten to go back and rework the placeholder dialogue. In one of the more egregious examples, Cody has Needy ruminating in the mental institution at the beginning of the film- “I was coming undone like those jeans I made in Home Ec. Falling to pieces like Patsy Cline. Shredded like moo-shu pork. Dead inside.” It seems as if Cody is gilding the voiceover lily here, just packing on the descriptors indiscriminately. Tangentially annoying about this particular line of dialog is that while she is expressing some knowledge of who Patsy Cline is, much later in the script Needy is ignorant of the slightly more recent vintage pop star Phil Collins. More lily gilding can be found in lines such as “She’s just staring out the front window like a zombie mannequin robot statue.”
Also distressing is the lack of strong characterizations that graced all of the characters in Juno. While the relationship between Needy and Jennifer, and to a lesser extent between Needy and Chip, is well defined, none of the other characters really have any dimension to them. Parents and teachers are painted wit the same clueless brush that seems out of place from Cody. The school’s Goth clique, who factor into the plot more so than one would think when they are first introduced, comes off more as broadly written parody more at home on South Park rather than a group of actual teenagers. The scene where they disrupt the funeral of one of their own killed by Jennifer could have been hysterical, but only elicits eye-rolling the way it is written here.
On the plus side, the script has a solid story foundation. The plot moves along briskly and even promises a substantially amount of gore for genre fans. (One victim is described as looking like “lasagna with teeth” after being attacked by Jennifer.) Darkly funny, Cody is definitely playing with a reversal of the young woman-as-victim trope of most horror films. Sure, this has been explored in such films as Ginger Snaps, May, the recent Teeth and the upcoming All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, but Cody still manages to keep the material feeling fresh, by using the horror elements of the story to mock the sexual politics of teenage girls. Jennifer is a beautiful, young girl who clearly has used the allure of her body to get what she wants. This doesn’t seem to bother the plainer Needy, until Jennifer sets her eyes on Chip, becoming a predator whom Needy must defend herself and her relationship from. Cody also scores some satirical points on how communities react in the wake of tragedies, with candlelight vigils being held where the townsfolk keep singing Soft Shoulder’s rather insipid ballad.
The script also contains some truly inspired comedy ideas. The band responsible for Jennifer’s possession is a great parody of the current wave of emo rock indie bands. They’re dumb enough to mistake the provocatively-dressed Jennifer as a virgin and to have gotten the instructions for their demonic ritual from a Google search.
It may seem that I am being hard on Cody here, but in a way she brought that on herself, the strength of her first script having raised expectations for her work. That’s an unfortunate side effect of a business where, as the old adage goes, you are only as good as your last picture.
As I write this, Jennifer’s Body has not yet begun production, so hopefully there’s time for Cody to take a run through the script and give each line of dialog the careful consideration it deserves. The script could very much live up to the expectations raised by her breakout screenplay for Juno. One good polish is all the Jennifer’s Body script needs in order for it to be the next leap forward in Diablo Cody’s career instead of an unfortunate stumble.