Hell is a teenage girl, or so we're told at the beginning of Jennifer's Body, a glib but entertaining comic-horror film from Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight). This may seem like a reasonable enough statement to anyone who has crossed paths with said creatures, but it's not an entirely accurate representation of the thesis of Jennifer's Body. In this movie, hell is actually two girls, embroiled in the fiendish complexity of a deep female friendship. The fact that one of them is a boy-eating demon is, believe it or not, secondary.
Anita (Amanda Seyfried of Big Love and Mamma Mia!) and Jennifer (Megan Fox), residents of a bleak town called Devil's Kettle, fell in girl love with each other in the sandbox and have remained friends well into high school they wear matching lockets engraved with the initials BFF despite their differences. Jennifer is a pampered, sought-after cheerleader and a raging narcissist (she has a framed photograph of herself on her vanity) while Anita, or Needy as she's known, is a bespectacled, smart girl whose single mom (Amy Sedaris) works the swing shift. The only thing Needy has that Jennifer doesn't is a devoted boyfriend. Chip (Johnny Simmons) is a band geek and soft-eyed sweetheart essentially a replica of the Michael Cera character from Juno and he barely even notices Jennifer's Playboy physique. To him, she's just the rival who cuts into his time with Needy.
On the day the action starts, Needy is persuaded to leave Chip at home and accompany Jennifer to a local dive bar to see a band. The girls stand together, holding hands, listening to Low Shoulder, the preposterously pretentious band fronted by the "salty" Nikolai (Adam Brody), and Jennifer is completely smitten. Suddenly the warring elements of Needy's relationship with Jennifer play across her face. She's pleased for her friend finally ablaze with passion, rather than her usual cynicism but simultaneously afraid for her, because Jennifer's craving for Nikolai is so intense, and because she herself knows better than to fall for a poseur like him. That's her strength.
And she's right about him. He is trouble. Within minutes, a suspicious electrical fire leaves the bar in flaming ruins and Jennifer disappears with Nikolai and the band, only to turn up later covered in blood, starving and projectile vomiting what looks like used motor oil. Soon their male classmates start turning up partially consumed ("Lasagna with teeth" is the description of one victim.) It seems Jennifer has gone from metaphorical man eater to the real thing. Every kill makes her more physically powerful and more beautiful. "I feel scrumptious," she tells Needy and undeniably, she is.
The script is very recognizably Cody's, laced, as Juno's was, with pop-culture-inspired puns. Some are mildly amusing. "Move on dot org!" Jennifer tells Needy when she brings up the troubling issue of all the dead bodies. More fall flat, as when Jennifer accuses Chip of jealousy: "You're Jell-O." Fox handles Codyspeak with the kind of relish you expect from an actress who has spent too much time with Michael Bay. Seyfried, a much more nuanced actress, mumbles a bit when she gets to a line that is too obviously Juno's rather than Needy's.
There is a lot of intelligent camp here, and some sharply observed characterizations (Brody in particular is wickedly funny). Female empowerment would have been the obvious message here, with Jennifer's bloody appetites stemming from a take-back-the-night scenario gone terribly awry (as in Teeth, a smart indie film from 2007), so it was a pleasure to see Cody and Kusama delving instead into the frequently disempowering effect of female friendships. Their depiction of the ways in which women like Needy are willing to compromise themselves to indulge an ultimately less secure friend is spot-on.
As the movie approaches its bloody climax, we're cheering for Needy to take back her own night. But Cody and Kusama have to contend with a tricky story element; you can't just break off your friendship with a demon. In trying to resolve the plot in a crowd-pleasing fashion, they loop back, unsuccessfully, to the idea that BBFs really are forever, negating the more interesting groundwork they'd laid. Juno gathered strength as it headed toward its wistful, touching conclusion, which made it easier to put aside any annoyance with all that honest-to-blogging. Walking out of this film, one hopes that someone, maybe a very dear girlfriend, will convince Cody that phrases like Jesus Fries are demonstrations of a tic, not the talent she has in abundance and should be fostering more carefully.