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Movie Review

Witty 'Jawbreaker' Is a Wicked Campus Romp

February 19, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Jawbreaker," Darren Stein's wickedly hilarious sendup of high school mores, takes its title from that hard candy about the size of a pingpong ball. Although not as serious or sophisticated, this zesty film rekindles fond memories of "Heathers" of some years back in its dark view of teenagers.

Courtney (Rose McGowan), the icy undisputed queen of Reagan High, comes up with what she insists on calling a "clever prank" even after it goes lethally awry. To celebrate the 17th birthday of one of her three veritable ladies-in-waiting, Courtney decides that she and the others will kidnap the girl, bind and gag her, and put her in the trunk of a car and release her for a surprise breakfast. Guess what? When the girls open the trunk, they discover that the birthday girl has asphyxiated because Courtney decided to gag her with a jawbreaker.

What fun Stein has in taking it from there. From the get-go, Rebecca Gayheart's Julie, who actually has a sense of decency lurking beneath her allegiance to the all-powerful Courtney, wants to go to the police, but she's overruled by this callous campus leader, seconded by Julie Benz's Marcie, an airhead who sucks up Courtney's every word. Very swiftly, however, there's a major complication: Wistful class nerd Fern (Judy Greer) inadvertently learns what happened.

No sooner has Julie declared to Courtney, "You can't hide a murder with a make-over" than Courtney has done just that, transforming Fern, re-christened Vylette, into a lovely swan in return for her silence. Designer Vikki Brinkkord has come up with closets full of trashy chic finery so that the girls will cut a swath the second they step out of their boudoirs, and Carol Strong's makeup and hairstyles complete their picture to brazen perfection.

Something will, of course, give before the end, but when it does it is as inspired as the rest of the film. While Courtney is coaching Vylette to become a campus star so intently she fails to realize she may be creating a rival, Julie becomes increasingly alienated from Courtney, rediscovering her values and wrestling with her conscience. (A blackmailing Courtney points out that Julie, like it or not, has allowed herself to become an accomplice.) Meanwhile, Pam Grier--yes, the one and only--plays a canny police detective investigating the death of the girl in the trunk.

Courtney is one of the bitchiest dames on the screen since Joan Crawford's Crystal in George Cukor's "The Women." Her soulless prattle is consistently amusing, and the silly chatter between her and her followers becomes the heart of the film, which suggests--admittedly not for the first time, but wittily all the same--that to true believers popularity and the intoxicating power it confers is so all-important that nothing else matters, not even death.

Stein deftly keeps things crackling between his actresses, while Grier easily commands the screen every second she's on camera and Carol Kane contributes a delightful portrayal of the prim but firm principal of Reagan High (a composite of the local Dorsey and University high schools). This is actually Stein's second film, and it leaves us looking forward to Stein's debut film, the soon-to-be-released "Sparkler."

* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality, language and violence, all involving teens. Times guidelines: The film is typical for its genre, with the sex somewhat more suggestive than the norm.

'Jawbreaker'

Rose McGowan: Courtney Shayne

Rebecca Gayheart: Julie Freeman

Julie Benz: Marcie Fox

Judy Greer: Fern Mayo

Pam Grier: Det. Vera Cruz

Carol Kane: Miss Sherman

A Columbia TriStar presentation. Writer-director Darren Stein. Producers Stacy Kramer, Lisa Tornell. Cinematographer Amy Vincent. Editor Troy Takaki. Music Stephen Endelman. Costumes Vikki Brinkkord. Production designer Jarry Fleming. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

In general release.

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