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Colorful production design and attractive cast can't hold this film up

Starring: Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, Julie Benz, Judy Greer, Chad Christ, Ethan Erickson, Charlotte Roldan, Carol Kane, Pam Grier, and Marilyn Manson
Screenplay: Darren Stein
Producers: Thom Colwell, Stacy Kramer, and Lisa Tornel
Director: Darren Stein
MPAA Rating: R for language, violence, sex, and nudity

I grew up in the 80s, but I can strongly say that I did not watch a lot of movies from that decade. Films like Heathers and Fast Times at Ridgemont High did not appeal to me. I was either interested in sweet, family films or bloody horror films. I do remember seeing Carrie, and a lot of Jawbreaker is inspired by that Stephen King adaption. Being the 90s, Hollywood is short on ideas, so what to do? Why, recreate the films from the 80s that many teenagers have never seen. But instead of merely recreating them, they are self-aware with lines like "While we're at it, why don't we pick up a bucket of pig's blood too?" The film knows it is a rehash, and it succeeds on that basic fundamental level.

Unfortunately, it becomes so absurd that the plot takes on a life of its own. The filmmakers are doing one thing, while the screenplay does another. Soon, the plot is full of holes, and more often than not it doesn't make sense. The film starts off quite well, more or less a satire on high school life. The high school is ruled not by the administration, but by the four most popular girls: Liz (Charlotte Roldan), Courtney (Rose McGowan), Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), and Marcie (Julie Benz). Everyone wants to be their friends, especially young wallflower Fern Mayo (Judy Greer). Fern has grown infatuated with Liz, who is everything she wants to be but can't.

Liz, however, is taken out of the picture early on, as Courtney, Julie, and Marcie kidnap her as a prank. They shove a jawbreaker in her mouth, gag her, and then throw her into the trunk of their car. As they arrive at the restaurant where they will celebrate her birthday, they discover that Liz choked on the jawbreaker. As all accidental-death movies go, they agree not to tell the police, but rather take her back home and make it look like she has been raped. Courtney, the most villainous of them all, calls the school and pretends to be her mother. "She's sick and won't be attending school today," she says, agreeing to pick up Liz's homework. Fate intervenes, and Courtney forgets to pick up her homework. Instead, Fern is asked to take it, and discovers the deadly secret.

Courtney, however, isn't about to get caught. Using her knowledge about the social structure of high school, she gives Fern the one thing she has always wanted: popularity. Giving her a make-over and changing her name to Vylette opens new doors for the former nerd. Now, she can have any man she had ever wanted, while still having Courtney wrapped around her finger. Meanwhile, Julie has become an outcast from the clique, wallowing in her own grief. One word to the police would mean a prison sentence, while not saying anything destroys her inner self. All of this begins to move towards the inevitable conclusion that pays direct homage to Brian DePalma's Carrie.

The one thing Jawbreaker does have going for it is a slick visual sense with stylistic flourishes every now and then. The final prom sequence is almost surreal in its progression, a gliding McGowan gets pegged with many corsages while deteriorating physically into a hideous mess of makeup and hair. Director Stein has a lot of fun messing around with high school cliches (many of which are very true, despite their cliche-ness). Stein goes over-the-top often, and yet maintains a sense of reality. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Stein's screenplay is even more of a mess, as plot holes open up and remain locked in our memory. His characters are mostly one-dimensional with the exception of both Fern/Vylette and Courtney. Julie's guilt seems almost a plot contrivance instead of a realistic character trait, while Marcie hardly gets any screen time of her own.

As is with many films dealing with high school, the cast is loaded with good-looking people (even the so-called ugly duckling). Leading them is Rose McGowan, the big-busted blond bimbo in the original Scream. Scream made her bankable, but it wasn't until she began dating musician Marilyn Manson that she became a teenage icon of sorts. Here, she plays the villainous devil with relish, sinking her teeth into the absurd role. She's good at it too. Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend) is very good as Julie, if only her character was written more thoughtfully. Judy Greer is good as the ugly duckling-turned-blond goddess, mixing the right amount of emotion into each scene. Julie Benz is wasted in her role... her very brief performance in As Good As It Gets was more memorable than this. Chad Christ (who made his debut in 1997's Gattaca) and Ethan Erickson are both woefully underused. This modern-day cast is mixed with some older "teenage stars." Pam Grier gives a weak performance despite her character's horrible dialogue. Carol Kane is quite funny as a faculty member at the high school--the screen brightened every time she appeared. Even P.J. Soles makes a special appearance as the mother of the dead girl. Soles starred in one of my childhood favorites, Rock 'n' Roll High School. And yes, if you are quick to notice, that's Marilyn Manson sans makeup as the slimy man who gets setup for the rape of Liz Purr.

High school comedies are a dime-a-dozen nowadays, and each film needs to have its own goal in order to succeed. Clueless (the best high school comedy to come out in years) was an adaption of Emma set in modern times. Alicia Silverstone made the film the classic it is. What it did right was that it didn't set out to satire anything, really. Instead, it upheld high schoolers as being intelligent and bright, all while being apparently ditzy and stupid. Jawbreaker does nothing like that. Instead, it pays homage to the classics of the 70s and 80s without coming off as original. Just calling the film an homage doesn't make it a good movie. Here is proof.

Jawbreaker is rated R for language, violence, sex, and nudity. The sight of a girl with a jawbreaker stuck in her neck is quite gruesome, and the film is dark in its overall tone. It's aiming at the same audience that supported films like Urban Legend or Varsity Blues, but it probably won't have the same positive reaction those two received. It's a movie that's just there, really. There's no purpose behind it. Premiered at Sundance (where I originally saw it), it received a rather mixed reaction. It's a very small budget feature, and will probably prove successful financially in the long run. Other than that, the film is a light piece of fluff--unoriginal from start to finish.

**1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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