As the stars walked the red carpet for the Toronto premiere of “Jennifer’s Body,” there were fans screaming “Megan!” and “Adam!” and one, just off to the side, holding up a picture of screenwriter Diablo Cody affixed to a piece of cardboard and illuminated like a medieval manuscript. Even during this conclave of international cineastes, you’d have a hard time finding someone who could pick the average screenwriter out of a crowd, let alone find a picture of him or her to decorate. But with only a single produced script to her credit, Cody has managed to make herself the first brand-name screenwriter since Paddy Chayefsky, a celebrity in an industry whose disregard for the written word is practically axiomatic.
“Jennifer’s Body,” Cody’s Opus No. 2, is a horror movie — or, more precisely, a riff on one, since at no point does the film even attempt to tap the subconscious fears that make the genre tick. Megan Fox, lit and made up to suggest a cross between a brunette Barbie and a surgically modified porn star, plays Jennifer, a high school hottie who’s transformed into a bloodthirsty demon with a taste for nubile boyflesh. Amanda Seyfried, her nerd-girl status telegraphed by a pair of standard-issue hornrims, plays Needy (née Anita), Jennifer’s childhood best friend and eventual nemesis.
Given that Jennifer’s infernal appetites surface after she unwisely follows a scuzzy emo band led by Adam Brody into their windowless van, “Jennifer’s Body” could loosely be classed as a rape and revenge movie, but there’s no weight to any of its underlying metaphors. Director Karyn Kusama (of “Girlfight” and “Aeon Flux”) draws on, and sometimes overtly steals from, “Carrie” and “Heathers,” but she never connects with the social and sexual anxieties that drive high school movies. There’s not a moment that feels informed by real life.
“Jennifer’s Body” is instantly recognizable as the product of the same pop-culture besotted intelligence that spawned “Juno.” Every line has been worked and reworked to transform plainspoken utterances into the self-aware argot of small-town teenagers whose best shot at leaving a mark is adding a minor curlicue to the language. Girlfriends aren’t jealous; they’re “lime-green Jello.” Cute boys are “salty,” the good ones extra so. But the clunky dialogue sounds as if it were tapped out on a Blackberry between pitch meetings. After meeting Brody’s kohl-eyed singer, Needy says, “He was skinny and twisted and evil, like this petrified tree I saw when I was a kid” — a sentence that wouldn’t pass muster in a young adult novel, let alone a movie so insistent on its own cleverness.
“Juno”‘s razzle-dazzle wordplay may have been its flashiest selling point, but the movie had a heart as well as a mouth. Here, there’s nothing to anchor Cody’s flights of linguistic fancy. Even before she’s demonized, Fox never seems quite human, and the sandbox flashbacks meant to illustrate the depth of Jennifer and Needy’s childhood relationship are pure corn. Kusama and Cody seem to have forgotten one of the core rules of the genre: It’s only a horror movie if you care who gets killed.
Packing on a pot belly and fuzzy-caterpillar mustache, Matt Damon turns Jason Bourne inside out as Mark Whitacre, the self-styled hero of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” A chemist turned executive at agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, Whitacre becomes involved in a global scheme to fix the price of the corn additive lysine, and turns FBI stooge when he fears his part will be uncovered. Dubbing himself Agent 0014, “because I’m twice as smart as 007,” he collects hundreds of hours of surreptitiously recorded audio and video tapes, building the government’s case.
That much, at least, is fact, drawn from Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book. But Scott V. Burns’ screenplay doesn’t place much emphasis on verisimilitude. The movie opens with the standard-issue warning of departures from fact, followed by a snotty, “So there.” Whitacre’s narration is discursive rather than authoritative, interrupting the spy thriller-in-progress to relay tidbits on the survival habits of butterflies, and Marvin Hamlisch’s swollen, overripe score is deliberately out of sync with the movie’s mundane surroundings. Soderbergh, also the movie’s pseudonymous cinematographer, shoots everything in sickly, washed-out shades, giving the film the texture of a motel carpet.
At times, “The Informant!” slips from being wry to merely arch A string of scenes in its latter half feature stand-up comedians in prominent roles: Patton Oswalt, followed by Paul F. Tompkins, and then by a Smothers Brother. It’s like being jabbed in the ribs again and again, and it nearly derails what is otherwise the film’s strongest section. Whitacre’s daffy delusions start to spin out of control as the investigation gathers steam, and keeping track of its twists and turns starts to grind down our minds as well. The antic back-and-forths lose their luster, and the movie’s surface begins to warp until we don’t know what we’re watching. Suddenly being a spy doesn’t seem like so much fun.
Sam Adams is our guest critic for the month of September.
[Additional photo: “The Informant!”, Warner Bros., 2009]