Diablo's Daughters: 'United States of Tara' & 'Jennifer's Body'

December 29, 2009

DIABLO CODY HAS to have multiple personalities. There’s no other way the stripper-turned-screenwriter could create films as unbearably trite and hipster-handed as “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body” while also dreaming up the whip-smart, wonderfully believable new Showtime series, “United States of Tara.”

With the legendary Steven Spielberg in tow as a fellow executive producer, Cody has created one of the year’s finest series: Set in Overland Park, Kansas, “United States of Tara” (the first season is out now on DVD) follows Tara Gregson (an impressively cast Toni Collette), a wife and mother who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. Whenever she’s supremely stressed out or emotionally distraught, Tara switches into one of her different alters: Either T, your typical out-of-control 15-year-old (think “Thirteen”); Alice, a steel-edged, ’50s housewife; Buck, a male Vietnam veteran who loves beer and porn; or Gimme, an animalistic expression of Tara’s id.

And given that her punk princess daughter Kate (Brie Larson), unbelieving sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) and parents Beverly and Frank (Pamela Reed and Fred Ward, respectively) are always getting on Tara’s case, the transitions usually come fast and furious. Each episode of the series’ first season focuses on one of Tara’s switches and how it affects her relationship with her family, including her all-patient, endlessly loving husband Max (John Corbett, whose calmness will totally remind viewers of his stint as Aiden on “Sex and the City”) and supportive son Marshall (the wide-eyed Keir Gilchrist), and these first 12 episodes also follow Max’s obsessive interest in finding out who raped Tara in college, the event which she believes sparked her disorder but can’t remember.

Nearly every episode of the season is pretty much flawless, throwing together the solid cast with a well-crafted script that effectively builds character development as the 12 episodes progress. From the pilot, in which the audience is introduced to Tara, T, Charmaine’s disbelief of her sister’s condition and Buck’s paradoxical mocking of Marshall’s sexuality but simultaneous rabid defense of Tara’s family, to the season’s climax episode, “Betrayal,” where T’s promiscuity causes Marshall to swear off his mother and burn down the shed where the alters live, each 22 minute-segment packs a solid punch. And neither of those even come close to the season finale, where Tara starts re-evaluating her decision to check herself into a clinic specializing in her disorder and Collette delivers one of her finest performances by switching seamlessly from alter to alter.

Though the episodes do fall into a somewhat emotional upheaval-transition-loving aftermath formula, it’s Collette’s and Corbett’s performances and the show’s dialogue which keep everything afloat. Whether Collette is peeing on her parents’ bed as Gimme (an alter Max describes as a “weird poncho goblin or something”), smirkingly attempting to wash out Kate’s mouth with soap as the red lipstick-and-crinoline-wearing Alice or offering to watch porn with Max (“I got big girls, black girls, big black girls,” the alter says of his selection) as Buck, she’s ridiculously believable, going from uptight housewife to swaggering truck driver with deceptive ease. And similarly good is Corbett, who works hard to keep Tara grounded — especially in the episode “Transition,” when her parents try to take Marshall and Kate away to live with them — while also seeming most human around her alters. The temptation he feels around Alice, who is determined to shove out Tara and stick around for good, or his fatherly overprotection of T, who loves to pick up neo-Nazi sailors at local arcades, work well to round out his good guy approach and make him more than just the eye candy on Tara’s arm.

But the performances wouldn’t be nearly as good without the show’s dialogue, which gives zingers to practically everyone in the cast. For example, after a second breast implant surgery, Charmaine’s newfound self-confidence comes to light with lines like “I think I’m going to wait three dates before I let a guy fuck me,” while Marshall’s deadpan delivery works well with “I think it’s fair to say I win every crazy-mother contest.” The best lines, though, undoubtedly go to T, whose over-the-top skankiness makes phrases like “bitch-ass snitch-ass” comedy gold.

Nevertheless, the set’s extras weigh it down. Much like other Showtime DVD sets, there are some extras included in the two discs and then a few others you can “unlock” online — but unfortunately, only one of those is truly interesting. For example, there’s a “Sitting Down with Diablo Cody” feature that lasts barely three minutes and focuses on things like her first pet’s name, how many words she can type a minute and her failure at doing porn (“I’ve never done porn; didn’t get the chance. Tried!”), rather than the show itself, and the features you can “unlock” online are simply interviews with Collette, Cody, Corbett and others that you can view on the show’s website for free. The only intriguing extra is “Tara’s Alters,” which includes interviews with Cody, Collette and others about T, Alice, Buck and Gimme and offers insights about how the show’s crew “favors Buck” and Cody calls Alice “the velvet hammer.” One special extra feature, however, isn’t enough to make up for the rest of them.

Overall, though, it’s pretty surprising that Cody could put together such a fine show, but in a way, it makes sense: The half-hour runtime lends itself well to the zany content, and while the show’s premise may be somewhat unbelievable, it’s certainly more agreeable than Megan Fox trying to be a snarky succubus, probably because Collette is the kind of actress Fox dreams of being. Just sayin’.

Despite the first line of “Jennifer’s Body,” hell isn’t a teenage girl. Hell is this movie.

Diablo Cody’s second film, an attempt at black comedy that somewhat flopped back in September and is now on DVD, fails in practically every regard. From its tragically bad lead actress (a brain-numbingly awful Megan Fox) to its disjointed plot to its obvious pandering to the girl-on-girl-loving teen dudes seeing this flick (see: a completely unnecessary faux-lesbian make-out), “Jennifer’s Body” tries incredibly hard to be a cult classic but doesn’t go far enough in its reach.

Real cult classics, like “Fight Club,” “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Pink Flamingos,” were completely balls-to-the-wall, full-on onslaughts of violence and comedy that flirted with the extreme. “Jennifer’s Body,” in contrast, is a cinematic identity crisis: Cody wants to create an underground film that’s also accepted by mainstream audiences. As a result, “Jennifer’s Body” throws together poor sarcasm, shoddy gore and an awful analysis of teenage girl-dom in about an 100 minutes, but if “Heathers” was what Cody was aiming for, she might have had a brain tumor for breakfast.


The movie flits between the present and the past, adopting a background-first narrative style that heavily relies on narration from main character Anita Lesnicki, nicknamed Needy (Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia!”). Needy’s life gets all f-d up when her best friend, the pretty, slutty and popular Jennifer Check (Megan Fox, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”), with whom she has nothing in common but a childhood friendship (“sandbox love never dies”) is murdered by local indie band Low Shoulder, who needs to sacrifice a virgin to Satan in order to get popular. But the band wrongly judged Jennifer — as she tells Needy, she’s not even a “backdoor virgin” any more, and after she’s killed, her body is possessed by a succubus because the sacrifice wasn’t completely honest. The succubus, who has a taste for male flesh, then goes tearing through the town, chomping on high school students in order to retain Jennifer’s beauty and social status over the “normal girls” — and only Needy knows about her and can stop it.

Any film that absurd could, at least in some ways, have the possibility to be great. Maybe there’s tons of gore, like “Dawn of the Dead,” or some heavy sexuality, like “Zombie Strippers,” to push it over-the-top and into viewers’ hearts. But the problem with “Jennifer’s Body” is that it stays in the middle, never really plunging down one definitive genre or stylistic viewpoint. It tries to be both a teenage comedy and a slasher flick, but the balance fails — in interviews, Cody has said she was strongly influenced by ’80s classic “The Lost Boys,” but that film worked well because of its mysticism, nasty fight scenes (vampire blowing up in the cave = freaking nasty) and some fierce action from the Coreys.

In “Jennifer’s Body,” however, there’s a bit of gore here and there, but only one real action scene and too many shoddy special effects; Needy and her boyfriend have sex once, but the scene is juxtaposed with a lame murder that detracts from any emotional connection viewers could have with the film’s heroine; and Needy and Jennifer eventually go from being inseparable to hating one another, casually mentioning previous fights and disagreements they had that Cody’s script doesn’t even attempt to explain. Whenever the film tries to develop its characters, it fails: All you get is that Jennifer is a skeezebag who walks all over Needy, not any understanding of why girls who are best friends may also secretly hate each other. Cody and director Karyn Kusama obviously want the scene where Needy tears off Jennifer’s “BFF” charm necklace to be an impactful one (they even rely on some slow-mo action), but since their companionship wasn’t really that developed to begin with, you barely care.

And while Seyfried is the film’s saving grace — she at least pulls her weight more than Fox does, whose “hot girl-turned-monster” role doesn’t seem to need that much actual effort aside from pouting and hair-flips — even she can’t deftly handle the film’s extremely annoying script. Much like “Juno” was littered with lots of fake slang that no teenager actually uses, “Jennifer’s Body” forces its stars to utter things like “The lead singer’s extra salty” (even Needy’s boyfriend, Chip, has to ask for a definition of “salty,” which supposedly means beautiful) and compare breasts to “smartbombs” (“You point them in the right direction, and shit gets real,” Jennifer says smugly) and an uncircumcised penis to a “sea cucumber.” Ugh.

All of that pales in comparison, however, to the shamelessly exploitative faux-lesbian scene whose cinematography pulls heavily from “Cruel Intentions” but pales in comparison to the 1999 film about manipulative step-siblings with weaknesses for cocaine and nudity. When Jennifer and Needy make out, the scene is all close-up tongues and thrashing limbs, and makes utterly no sense in the film’s development: By that point, Needy (who has just had sex with Chip for the first time) already knows Jennifer is a murdering monster who threw up black filth (which Needy describes as “roadkill and sewing needles mixed together. … It was like, evil”) all over her kitchen, but she still goes for the liplock. It’s all a poorly manipulated — and totally inexcusable — ploy at scoring some titillation points from the film’s horned-up male fans.

Plus, for anyone who was hoping that the DVD’s extra features would give some insight as to why Cody cast Fox or what she was hoping to achieve in terms of black comedy, prepare to get let down. The set’s only special features are an extended version of the film, which doesn’t really differ from its theatrical run in any obvious way, and audio commentary from Kusama and Cody about random stuff like how much they respect Amy Sedaris, who has barely five lines in the movie (even though Kusama insists “she did something different every single take”) and how “pop culture killed” Jennifer. If only someone could have killed this movie, that would have been great.

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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