*Diablo’s Playground

With my customary inability to keep up with what’s going on in the world, I have only just availed myself of the work of ‘noughties’ It Girl writer Diablo Cody. Three years ago, Cody, of course, became widely celebrated for having authored the screenplay of the film Juno, about a witty pregnant teenager. It’s taken me this long to see Juno partly because the friend who invited me to see it with her back in the day wanted to see it in Gold Class, and I only like to see extremely long movies when I ‘GC’, in order to extract maximum value for money. What actually spurred me finally to see Juno was the recent DVD release of Cody’s screenwriting follow-up, the ‘horror comedy’ Jennifer’s Body. I had been hearing about Body for a long time and been greatly anticipating its appearance, given that the film looked to resemble a cross between Heathers and a night at Dracula’s theatre restaurant. However, Body flopped in the United States and, to my amazement, did not even have a cinema release in Australia, even though I wouldn’t have thought there are really so many movies for teenage girls that there would be no room at all for it at our multiplexes. Thus, I decided to spend a Saturday night getting across the Cody oeuvre, and also, therefore, understanding once and for all how to craft a success as opposed to a failure.

Wading my way through everything on offer on the Juno and Jennifer’s Body rentals, I felt my customary sadness at the way movies that haven’t been as successful as had been hoped are usually so neglected at the DVD stage; it’s like looking at pictures in the newspaper of sad-eyed animals who require rehousing. On the Jennifer’s Body DVD, the only extras are some deleted scenes and a gag reel. The gag reel is a variety of special feature that has a particular poignancy when you know no one involved felt like making gags after the opening weekend, when they looked at ‘the figures’. On the Juno DVD, on the other hand, there is a seemingly endless number of featurettes on the topic of how wonderful the movie, and every single person involved with it is, including one devoted solely to Cody herself, called Diablo Cody is Totally Boss. In them, people laugh at Cody’s every quip as if she’s some kind of overlord and they’re her serfs. This fascinated me, as I don’t think I’ve seen so much focus on a screenwriter since Pia Zadora played one, by the name of Jerilee Randall, in the wholly ‘boss’ The Lonely Lady.

While Cody is certainly talented, I’m sure she would be the first to admit that she has benefited from having a ‘colourful past’: namely, having worked as a stripper and really come to attention when she utilised her experiences in this area in her blog, The Pussy Ranch. Bizarrely, there’s simply no denying the boost for a wordsmith that comes with being middle class and having worked in the sex industry, as seen in the example of perhaps Australia’s best-known living writerly ex-prostitute, Kate Holden, although Holden now specialises more in the ‘I’m too sensitive to cope with piped music in big shopping malls’ category of musings than the raunchy mama variety that launched Cody’s career. In any case, there’s a sense while watching the Juno extras of everyone being completely intoxicated with Cody, as though she’s Gough Whitlam in 1972. Mason Novick, the producer slash manager who discovered her, has mentioned in more than one medium having read Juno and ‘from the second I got the script, I was like, “Oh, my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever read”.’

Having finally watched Juno, I could understand why people took to it, although the secret to its success is also what made me have reservations. In short, Juno makes you feel that, no matter how tricky a situation may seem, everything can work out just fine, with all the cynical wisecracking only making this feel more authentic. Ultimately, though, all the good cheer feels similar to the attitude of those people in disaster movies who want to sweep the killer shark or faulty wiring under the carpet. The two prongs in the film’s happy resolution are that (I’m putting in a SPOILER ALERT!, even though I am completely aware that everyone has seen the film by now, so it is pointless) Juno discovers she’s in love, and the implication is lastingly, with Paulie, the baby’s teen dad; and that she goes ahead with adopting the baby out to a deserving woman, even though the woman’s immature heel of a husband (and, quite frankly, the only character who really engaged my sympathy) has bailed out, to go and live in a loft. This would all be good news except that Paulie seems to be a feeble young man (Michael Cera, anybody?), meaning that the two of them would, in the manner of teenagers, most likely either have broken up within two weeks after the action in the film concludes, or ended up staying together forever while Juno lobs verbal grenades at his manhood and he eventually goes to his death yet more enfeebled and possibly an alcoholic (a fate that I was always convinced would be that of pastel-jacketed love interest Blane in Pretty in Pink). Furthermore, the young woman, Vanessa, to whom Juno gives the baby seemed to me to be slightly unhinged; the kind of mother who would probably dress the boy in a little frockcoat, homeschool him, and one day murder his wife. Still, even while Molly Ringwald teen-pregnancy movie For Keeps? resembles one of the works of Ken Loach in comparison, Juno does have a sanguinity that is hard to resist completely.

Jennifer’s Body is an entirely different kettle of fish, focusing as it does on a cheerleader (Megan Fox, giving a perfectly fine performance and looking exquisite, even if she Welcome Back, Kotter-ishly also looks slightly too old to be in high school), who, due to a pop group’s John-Cassavetes-in-Rosemary’s-Baby type of ruthless ambition, becomes a demon who goes about picking off members of the male student body. Despite this non-naturalistic premise, the high schoolers in Body are, while given to droll banter, actually far more like actual teenagers than is Juno MacGuff. For example, the young people in Body are merely at a Dawson’s Creek level of preparedness to crack wise, rather than that of the Algonquin Round Table, and even the smart ones, like the heroine of the piece, Jennifer’s bespectacled best friend, Needy, and her darling boyfriend, Chip, have more authentic teenage dopiness and insecurity than do the young people in Juno. When I was sixteen, buying a jar of hair gel was a big deal, so I find it difficult to imagine being that age and taking an unwanted pregnancy in one’s stride while dispensing zingers.

As far as I can see, Jennifer’s Body flopped not so much because, as has been claimed, mixing horror and comedy doesn’t work, as that it is unusually dour. The male students who Jennifer butchers are, by and large, sensitive, book-reading types, not the prom-date-rapist-or-standard-issue-insensitive-lug sorts that meet their end in Heathers or Carrie, so it’s really quite terrible when no one comes to their rescue; also (SPOILER ALERT!), Jennifer and Needy end up dead and in an insane asylum, respectively. Thus, even though Body has less of a Juno-type hipster cast and certainly way less insufferably twee indie music on the soundtrack, and is a splashy horror-comedy flick rather than a standing-ovation-at-Sundance type of ‘small’ movie about domestic issues, it actually feels more like real life. While Jennifer’s Body might be a superficially less appealing film than Juno, I don’t know that it’s actually any worse. Maybe Body would have been more of a success if it had been made before all the Juno hype, although, of course, if Juno hadn’t been made, and there hadn’t been all the hype, Body may well not have come to fruition anyway.

Since she and her tattoos burst onto the scene, there’s been a colossal spate of Diablo Cody hating, due to, I assume, envy of her spectacular rise and insecurity in the face of her epic grooviness. In 2008 she was rumoured to be writing a screenplay based on her real-life situation of so many people being smouldering volcanoes of loathing as far as she was concerned. She has now fallen on her feet in the world of television, given her involvement in United States of Tara, which means there looks to be little danger of her becoming the Yahoo Serious of the American Midwest. But, geez, it makes me think that she must sit at home and, Sunset Boulevard style, obsessively watch the Juno DVD extras, in which she was an individual who was the coolest person in the world and everyone was waiting with bated breath for whatever she did next, in no doubt that it would be a triumph.

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