Jawbreaker Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

It was a shame what happened to Liz. What a way to wake up on your seventeenth birthday.
Jawbreaker Logo

With only a couple weeks since "She's All That" sent Baby Boom Echo moviegoers in droves to their local megaplex, yet another 'Cinderella story set in a high school' is bowing into theaters. And while "Jawbreaker" certainly shares some of the visual flourish and prom night angst of its predecessor, this latest addition to the 'set in a high school' genre takes a decidedly darker approach to the subject matter, making it more of a 'caper gone awry set in a high school'. This slick-looking package, featuring a deliciously malicious performance by Rose McGowan, is certainly a step-up from the cloying blandness of "She's All That", and certainly entertaining to a degree. However, some stumbles in the writing department prevent it from rivaling the vastly superior "Heathers" of 1989, which "Jawbreaker" seemingly pays homage to.

Liz was just perfect... and I always wondered what it would be like to be her.
Judy Greer, Rose McGowan, and Julie Benz

The setting is Reagan High, which is ruled by four beauty queens. Courtney Shane (Rose McGowan of "Phantoms" and "Scream") is the bitchy one; Julie Freeman (Rebecca Gayheart of "Urban Legend") is the decent one; Marcie Fox (Julie Benz of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") is the ditzy one; and Liz Purr (1993 Miss Teen USA Charlotte Roldan) is the beautiful and sweet one. On the morning of Liz's seventeenth birthday, Courtney, Julie, and Marcie kidnap Liz from her bed, stuff a jawbreaker into her mouth to muffle her screams, and throw her into the trunk of Courtney's convertible. However, when they stop for breakfast and open the trunk, they find that Liz has inadvertently asphyxiated on the jawbreaker and is very, very dead.

You cannot just call in sick for her... you have to tell someone.

Of course, the three girls go into a panicked frenzy as a result of the unexpected tragedy, but Courtney asserts control over the situation, as she always does. Owning up to their role in Liz's death is not an option, and she directs her compatriots to make it look as though Liz had died in her bed while having kinky sex. However, while staging Liz's 'accident', they are discovered by school's resident wallflower, Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), who has brought Liz's homework assignments from school.

We're going to make you one of us... beautiful, loved, popular, feared.
Rebecca Gayheart with writer/director Darren Stein

In order to buy Fern's silence, Courtney cuts a deal with the social outcast, transforming the shy and homely girl into prom queen material. In addition to her new look, Fern changes her name to 'Vylette' and gleefully becomes a permanent member of the in-crowd, with the intoxicating whiff of newfound popularity clearly going to her head. However, Julie finds Courtney's actions repulsive and drops out of the elitist clique in disgust, her fall from grace eliciting the barbs of her fellow students. Meanwhile, the local police investigate Liz's suspicious death, and homicide detective Vera Cruz (Pam Grier of "Jackie Brown") starts going around the school to ask questions.

It's not like we kill people... on purpose.

"Jawbreaker" is certainly a mixed bag. On the one hand, sophomore director Darren Stein certainly brings a lot of visual flourish to his storytelling, painting the universe that these girls inhabit in a series of bold and colorful strokes. With the help of cinematographer Amy Vincent ("Eve's Bayou") and a catchy soundtrack, "Jawbreaker" certainly makes a very strong impression with its resplendent lensing and judicious use of tricks from the MTV-school-of-filmmaking playbook. The film is highlighted by a number of standout set pieces, and while they don't all work, they are certainly a pleasure to watch. Two that come to mind include a surrealistic sequence that has Julie making her way through a hallway filled with stunned students that have just learned of Liz's death, and a visual leitmotif of the clique's commanding presence as they patrol the halls of the school.

You can't hide the truth with a makeover!

While Darren Stein has certainly attempted to create a Faustian tale of temptation and its inevitable corruption, the script begins to falter during the second act as it piles in the complications. Not only are most of the characters two-dimensional, but they are blandly two-dimensional. The two character transformations of the film, those of Julie and Fern, are purely functional and at times, come across as forced. Furthermore, while "Heathers" was marked by its sly, acerbic, and witty dialogue, this is sorely lacking in "Jawbreaker"-- even "Dawson's Creek" manages to elicit more compelling dialogue within its one-hour running time than this film manages in ninety minutes. For what is supposed to be a subversive black comedy, "Jawbreaker" is neither seditious nor funny.

It's a sick world... some of the sweetest candies are sour inside.
Pam Grier, Marilyn Manson, and Carol Kane

In the acting department, the standout performance of the ensemble is McGowan. She pulls no stops in her over-the-top portrayal of the film's manipulative dark beauty and overall repository of evil. Greer handles herself ably in her character's descent into depravity (despite being contrived), while Benz is passable with her portrayal of arrogant foolishness. Gayheart, while in a decidedly more meaty role than in "Urban Legend", is not as affecting as expected in her role as the film's conscience. In addition to the film's photogenic leads and the use of Pam Grier, Stein does some stunt casting with the appearance of Jeff Conaway ("Grease" and "Babylon 5"), William Katt ("The Greatest American Hero"), P.J. Soles ("Carrie"), and even shock-rocker Marilyn Manson (who McGowan recently got engaged with).

She's so evil! And she's only in high school!

"Jawbreaker" is certainly packed with pizzazz, making it an entertaining piece of eye candy, and given the film's paltry three million dollar budget, "Jawbreaker" will most likely make back its budget and then some on the first opening weekend. Unfortunately, the script does not hold the promise shown by the visual embellishment, resulting in a passable piece of satire. It may not be Shakespeare, but it is certainly an improvement over some of the recent teen fare that has been seen of late.

Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All rights reserved.

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