Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Come to "Zombieland" and Feel Alright

Zombie apocalypses are misrepresented in modern media far too often. Sure, everyone you know will probably die, but there are plenty of upsides if you do manage to survive. You will never find yourself wanting for any material possessions again; every store in the world is free for your scavenging. You will never have to work again, apart from dealing with the occasional, flesh-eating nuisance. Most importantly, you will finally have time to enjoy the little things. "Zombieland" drives this point home in its giddy final battle, easily the high point of the movie – one that promised to combine the sincere, loserly romance of "Superbad" with the zombie genre subversion of "Shaun of the Dead." It never quite beats either of those films at their own game but, by the end of the film, "Zombieland" has managed to gain a simpler purpose, as well as provide quite a bit of fun.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) was a bit hopeless prior to the invasion of the zombies, but he has managed to survive the onslaught by adhering to a short list of rules. He is now traveling from his college dorm to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. En route, he happens to run into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). (Sensing a pattern? The characters are named for their hometowns.) Tallahassee is considerably less tentative and practical than Columbus. He is, in fact, a bit nuts, submitting to no survival strategy and focusing on his search for a Twinkie – ironically elusive confections in the post-human world. The two travel in typical, odd-couple fashion until they run into two con-artist sisters, the young Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and the older Wichita (Emma Stone). They take Tallahassee's precious Cadillac and head for the west coast, but that is obviously not their final encounter.

"Zombieland" is a road movie, but the destination is not revealed very quickly, as Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's script is more concerned with mining the setting for jokes and developing the characters than anything else. Columbus' list, for example, is explained in the film's first sequence, but is constantly referenced throughout the film. Three-dimensional titles inserted into the scenes remind of us pertinent rules to, often, amusing effect. (We are reminded to "limber up" when Tallahassee pulls a muscle.) Personally, I found the titles to be a bit too flashy and jarring for a movie that is clearly seeking to bring the zombie movie down to Earth, but their use tapered off as the film progressed, and they were often funny enough to overcome this gripe.

The titles, however, are indicative of a larger issue that is easily the biggest problem in "Zombieland" – Alan Baumgarten's editing. From the moment Jesse Eisenberg's timid narration kicks in, the film makes its intentions clear: this is not going to be a glossy, action-fueled movie; this is low-key, character-driven comedy. Sure, the opening credits are a slow-motion ballet of firey explosions and splattering bodily fluids, but they are just background – the plot of "Zombieland" takes place after much of the action has already happened. Nevertheless, the film's early moments, in particular, are edited with a slick, snappy pace. The largely unnecessary narration that crowds into many scenes does not help, either. It all undermines the subdued tone that both the writers and the director clearly sought earlier in the process. Ruben Fleischer directed this movie without falling into any of the typical zombie movie trappings; his "Zombieland" is rightfully devoid of dread and horror.

Thankfully, things do slow down later in the film, in order to let the romance breathe and the characters grow. Yet, even here, the editing seriously stumbles over an emotional revelation about Tallahassee and the movie grinds to a halt when a potentially brilliant cameo takes way too long to get to its payoff. Even so, the slow build in the film's third act is beneficial, as the climactic amusement park showdown ramps the pace back up but, this time, with a wonderfully understated sense of whimsical fun.

The film's main cast only helps. These are versatile actors and they each navigate the surprising range of tones in "Zombieland" deftly, despite the fact that they are four out of a cast of seven. Jesse Eisenberg showed us his ability to carry a film in "Adventureland," suggesting that he can be a bit more than just a typical, loser protagonist. The beauty of his performance here is that Columbus is ever so slightly bolder in the face of fear that you would expect, whether it be at the hands of a girl, a zombie or even a zombie girl. He may occasionally show open fear, but he never resorts to predictable, panicky antics. Emma Stone, who had a small, but strong role in "Superbad," once again shows a surprising maturity. She is quite nuanced, as her character is genuinely strong and self-sufficient but never decidedly cold. Abigail Breslin defends her title as possibly the least annoying child star ever, too. Her mix of precociousness with just the right amount of naivete ensures that the girl from "Little Miss Sunshine" does not stick out in a gory zombie movie.

Woody Harrelson, of course, steals the show as Tallahasse. The guy is nuts and Harrelson sells it. The Twinkie thing makes complete sense to him, if no one else, and he makes that reason enough to root for him. Still, Tallahasse is decidedly human and, despite the editor's best efforts, his genuine moments never feel contrived. His somber handling of an ugly dilemma early in the film reminds us that he is the only veteran actor in the gang; he may be the most comical character in the film, but he does not simply disappear when things get emotional.

Columbus may be doing the narrating, but his favorite subject is Tallahasse. This man is the core of this film. He, after all, coins the rule that comes to define the film: "Enjoy the little things." "Zombieland" begins with turns in the direction of slacker romance and satire but, ultimately, Tallahasse steers the film away from any easy comparisons to its kin. This may render the film a bit slow in finding its purpose but, by the end, its simple mantra proves quite potent. It makes "Zombieland" the first horror movie that I ever walked away from wishing to be right there, with the characters.

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