MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Rose McGowan (Courtney Shayne), Rebecca Gayheart (Julie Freeman), Julie Benz (Marcie "Foxy" Fox), Judy Greer (Fern Mayo/Vylette), Chad Christ (Zack Tartak), Ethan Erickson (Dane Sanders), Carol Kane (Miss Sherman), Pam Grier (Detective Vera Cruz), William Katt (Mr. Purr), P.J. Soles (Mrs. Purr), Jeff Conaway (Marcie's Father)
Ten years after the release of Michael Lehmann's stinging teen satire "Heathers" (1989) comes "Jawbreaker," an inferior retread of the same material that is more outrageous, but less clever, acted with less charisma, and lacking in the former's biting sense of black humor. The events that transpire in "Jawbreaker" squeak out a strained laugh here and there, but overall it smells of something trying much too hard with too little to show for the effort.
The movie takes place at Reagan High School somewhere in California (are there any teen movies nowadays that don't take place on the West Coast?). The school is ruled by four snob goddesses, led by überbitch Courtney Shayne (Rose McGowan), an icy senior so lacking in morals, values, or simple human decency that she actually evokes the word "evil." Her three minions are Julie Freeman (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie "Foxy" Fox (Julie Benz), and Liz Purr, who in the opening minutes is accidentally killed by her three friends. They kidnap her on 17th birthday, intending to take her out to breakfast. To keep her from screaming, they stuff a huge jawbreaker in her mouth and cover it with tape. Unfortunately, while riding in the trunk on the way to the restaurant, the jawbreaker lodges in her throat, and Liz chokes to death.
So, what can the three teenager murderesses do? Julie and Marcie panic, but Courtney remains perfectly calm. She decides they have to cover up the accident, and make it look like Liz was murdered by some guy she was having sex with. They arrange the scene, but are caught in the act by Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), a plain, awkward wallflower who aspires to be popular. Knowing they are caught, Courtney makes a deal with Fern: if she keeps quiet, Courtney will give her a glamorous make-over and turn her into one of them.
Julie is not okay with this situation, but no matter. Courtney has determined the course of action, and she slowly pushes Julie out of the clique and allows Fern, now known as Vylette, to take her place. Julie, finding herself stranded without her "friends," takes up with nice guy Zack (Chad Christ), a drama club member with long hair. Meanwhile, Fern/Vylette morphs into a peroxide monstrosity of popularity, followed by leering groupies who revere her because they think she is a stunning exchange student who has instantly been given authority by her association with Courtney and Marcie. This is but one of the strained plot devices: that Fern's teachers don't seem to notice that she is missing and this new blond girl is now sitting in her seat.
Pam Grier, looking like she was dressed by Anne Rice, eventually shows up as a hardened police detective investigating Liz's death after the body is discovered by her parents (played in jokey cameos by William Katt and P.J. Soles, who played teenagers in Brian De Palma's "Carrie," one of many films referenced in "Jawbreaker"). Shock rocker Marilyn Manson, who in real life is engaged to McGowan, has a brief, blink-and-you-miss-it cameo, as well.
What all this turns out to be is a lot of sound and fury without much underlying meaning or even surface entertainment. Writer/director Darren Stein has done his homework on vicious teen dialogue, the usefulness of a kitschy soundtrack mixing '90s rock with '80s relics like The Cars and The Scorpions, and the eye-catching appealing of highly sexualized, outlandish costume design. His teen princesses--none of whom even remotely look like they're in high school--dress in skin tight tank tops, hip-hugging skirts, and stiletto heels, and they talk with the kind of ruthless intensity worthy of a sadistic drill instructor.
As a director, Stein utilizes a lot of neon lighting, flashy visual effects, and corny sounds, giving the movie something of a comic book feel. The approach works with the material, but sometimes Stein lays it on a little too thick. He often gives the feeling that he is as enamored with his popular quartet as the losers at Reagan High; his camera fetishizes them with long takes and close-ups of their legs as they walk in slow motion down the high school corridors with cool charm and a complete dismissal of everyone around them.
The point, of course, is to satirize contemporary high school culture and its insistence on exclusion, a point that is easily made within the first few minutes, which leaves Stein little to do except find a way for Courtney to get caught. The fact that his screenplay leaves so many loopholes in the crime cover-up that a rookie investigator would smell foul in five minutes doesn't help matters (why would the police buy a story about rape when the dead girl is a virgin, something that would come out in the autopsy?). Plus, the ending is ridiculously simplistic, even though it offers the brief gratification of seeing Courtney get what she deserves.
"Jawbreaker" would have been much more enjoyable if it had been half as funny as it thinks it is. One of the problems may be with the actors--none of them register as anything other than caricatures. Rose McGowan's bitchy attitude only goes so far before it grows tiresome and repetitive. Rebecca Gayheart and Chad Christ represents the movie's conscience, but, dull as they are, they aren't nearly enough to fill the moral vacuum at the movie's center. "Jawbreaker" is intended to be an in-your-face satire, I know, but a little subtlety around the edges wouldn't have hurt. Simply put, the movie is too obvious and too unoriginal to have any real impact, either in terms of its satire or its general enjoyment as a black comedy.
©1999 James Kendrick