Very bad schwings

"Jawbreaker" is a T&A black comedy that teases more than it delivers.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Sometimes evil comes in a sweet-looking package. Take Courtney Shayne (Rose McGowan), for example, the main protagonist of "Jawbreaker" and the vampiest senior at Reagan High School. Aside from the fact that Courtney and her unholy posse rule their adolescent roost through fear and intimidation, they've also just killed somebody. When the mock kidnapping of a friend ends with a very real corpse in the car trunk, Courtney, otherwise known as "Satan in heels," doesn't seem much concerned. Never mind that an improvised ball gag -- the jawbreaker of the film's title -- is now lodged squarely in the poor girl's throat like a fatal goiter. Courtney's got a class to get to. Besides, she never much cared for little dead Liz anyway.

Because "Jawbreaker" bills itself as a dark comedy, Courtney and her accomplices will from here on in behave in a manner appropriate to a Grand Guignol "Three's Company" -- clomping around in stilettos and miniskirts with a stiff in tow, devising wacky schemes for deflecting attention away from their misdeed. In the heat of post-manslaughter excitement, queen bee Courtney quickly reveals her natural talent for crime. She coolly arranges a shocking tableaux suggesting a sex crime and mounts a convincing fagade of concern. There are complications, however. While her ditzy acolyte Marcie (Julie Benz) is content to do her bidding, the other third of the snuff trio, Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), is having second thoughts. More troublesome still, school nerd and all-around pariah Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) has stumbled upon the grisly truth. One look at Fern's bad wig and we know where this is heading -- Courtney's going to offer her the Faustian option of reinventing herself as a glamour queen in exchange for her silence. (Why doesn't anyone in the movies ever use their makeover powers for good instead of evil?) Within days, however, Courtney's plans are unraveling -- a snoopy detective called Vera Cruz (Pam Grier) is hot on her heels, and a bleached blond, pink-clad Fern (now rechristened Vylette) is providing her with ample competition for the role of Reagan High's alpha bitch.

As written and directed by Darren Stein, "Jawbreaker" is an unpleasant bit of business -- a movie as full of heavy-handed clichis about the loathsomeness of women as "Very Bad Things" was about the sins of men. Here midriff-baring, hair-flipping shrews tool around in cars with BITCH plates, call each other whores, use boys for social climbing experiments and wear the kind of Monistat-baiting tight trousers not seen since Mvtley Cr|e, the "Dr. Feelgood" years. It's not just that these women are cartoons, they're not even particularly fresh or relevant cartoons. It's unsurprising that in such a shallow, bitter world as this one, the cruelest retribution the girls dream up for each other isn't criminal prosecution or even the pangs of conscience, but the loss of popularity.

McGowan, still better known for being Marilyn Manson's girlfriend and for the butt-bearing ensemble she wore to the MTV Music Awards than she is for her acting, has prematurely placed herself at a career crossroads. With her va-va-va-voom dimensions (she appears to have sprung directly from the imagination of Mattel) and her haughty bravado, she could become the cinematic antidote to stick-thin good girl blonds. She could beat up Helen, Gwyneth and Meg all at once and not even chip a talon. But she's also limited herself so far in the kinds of roles she's chosen. And if her Joan Crawford-in-training schtick here is any indication of her range, she's headed not for greater stardom but for the cat fights-and-cleavage territory of Aaron Spelling. As Courtney, McGowan appears to be trying to convey a kind of bored depravity, her exaggerated eyebrows doing all the acting for her with a few well-timed malevolent arches.

Though McGowan's wicked vixen is a major liability to "Jawbreaker" -- so vilely unsympathetic there's nothing left to do with her but take her down -- the movie also suffers from its own skittish sexual undercurrent. For a bunch of characters who are ostensibly the school bad girls at their adolescent peak, they seem naively uninterested in much beyond their own fashion wattage. Fern moons innocently over the dead girl's shiny hair and the freckles on the back of her neck, which merely prompts Detective Cruz to launch into a lecture about "friendship." Wouldn't it have been more interesting if Fern's conflicted role in the new social order stemmed at least in part from guilt over taking the place of someone she loved? Julie, meanwhile, her Marlo Thomas flip growing ever flatter as her status slips, pursues a chaste romance with a young actor who is widely rumored to be gay. Turns out he's probably not, so why even bring it up? And if he's conflicted, why not have Julie wonder about it. Even self-made sex bomb Courtney doesn't seem so very naughty -- her idea of kink is limited to strutting around in a babydoll and coaxing her boy toy into briefly fellating a popsicle. Despite all their seamed stockings and Wonder Bras, the Reagan High girls are as far removed from their sexuality as "Jawbreaker" is from comedy.

Further down in the pecking order, the supporting players, all apparently culled from the Ironic Casting Department, spend most of the movie trying to hang on to their dignity for dear life. Carol Kane is an uptight principal, Jeff Conaway is an Oprah-obsessed dad and P.J. Soles has a walk-on as the victim's mother. Seeing Soles, the former cult teen icon of "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Halloween," reduced to a lineless cameo in such a forgettable piece of celluloid, one doesn't know whether to be outraged that her part wasn't larger or relieved she was spared further embarrassment.

"Jawbreaker" fancies itself a wicked satire on youth, death and the disposability of image -- albeit one with a nonstop, semi-alternative soundtrack. (This is the kind of high school in which the Donnas play the prom.) And it shamelessly models itself on "Heathers," from the nymphet clique to the prefab youth slang, right down to the trippy dream sequences. It lacks, however, both the original's escalating sense of menace and its intriguingly baffled but deadly heroine. The lesson remains the same, though: Kids Are Cruel. It's something that everyone who's survived gym class already knows, and that most people are already capable of laughing at on their own. "Jawbreaker" may promise a series of gleefully cheap thrills, but in the end all it delivers is a whole lot of bad taste.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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