Zombieland (2009) dir. Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin and Bill Murray
By Greg Klymkiw
What’s not to like, right?
Well, lots, but the big one is mighty simple – the movie’s just no good.
And it’s too bad, because all the elements – in addition to those mentioned above – are in plain view. A great title. Two nicely matched actors. Two terrific actresses. Lots of carnage. A road trip across a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. An amusement park with cool rides and filled with zombies (a nice – on paper – substitute for Romero’s mall in “Dawn of the Dead”). A blend of humour and horror.
And most importantly:
With all these elements popping up throughout the picture, my constant inner refrain was, “Please, oh please – say it ain’t so! Please let this get better.”
Unfortunately, these sure-fire elements are not presented with the kind of intelligence, control and style they needed. The picture is a flaccid mess. The super-talented Jesse Eisenberg of “The Squid and the Whale” fame plays a young Woody Allen-like schlemiel who delivers deadpan narration on how he’s managed to survive a worldwide onslaught of flesh eating living dead. The casting, content and delivery is reasonably inspired; the rules of the world are set-up nicely, there’s some terrific zombie killing and a few lines actually manage to elicit some smiles and a couple of chuckles.
Enter Woody Harrelson as a zombie killing cowpoke extraordinaire who takes an instant dislike to Eisenberg, but grows to like him. The two characters have their differences, but they bond by their mutual love and prowess at killing zombies. Not a bad thing to bond over in a zombie movie, but it seldom goes beyond a by-the-numbers nod to a depth that doesn’t really exist.
The opening minutes are not too bad, but the style and presentation of the film’s inaugural un-spooling is pretty much dropped and tedium starts to set in until the fellows meet up with two babes; the sinfully sexy Emma Stone and the younger and thoroughly delightful Abigail Breslin. The two chicks are in peril, but in reality they’re cleverly using the cliché of weak women who need their men to con our two zombie killers into giving up their wheels and guns. Eventually all four team up and the fun should really begin. It doesn’t.
The story turns into a series of comedy and action set pieces that are not funny or suspenseful enough. Add to this an annoying A.D.D.-challenged approach to shooting and cutting (director Ruben Fleischer, not surprisingly, comes from music videos and commercials). He has no feel for suspense and his timing on the comedy front is always just off the mark.
While the leads are attractive to look at, they go through the obligatory ropes of most multiplex fodder, adding little spin to the proceedings save, perhaps, for Eisenberg’s performance which is delightful in its incongruity with the genre. This would all be fine if the writing had been better, but the screenplay by Fleischer and co-scenarists Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick delivers mostly frat boy humour gussied up with some wiseacre-speak from the wonderful Eisenberg. Woody Harrelson is not without amusement value, but again, he’s pure good ole’ boy without the kind of heart that might have lifted the picture beyond the perfunctorily machine-tooled variety. The ladies are perky and cute; especially since they’re allowed to kick some ass, but they too are cardboard cutouts without the shading that could have made them more interesting and engaging.
I also love the IDEA of the Texas backdrop to much of the proceedings, but there’s really no sense of place beyond the fact that we’re told the setting is Texas. The movie feels like it could be pretty much anywhere.
The overall pace of the picture is also problematic. Given the fact that the running time is a perfect 80 minutes, the annoying style of Fleischer’s approach, still manages to bung up the works and the picture feels far longer than it actually is.
“Zombieland” wants to be “Shaun of the Dead”, but the writing is not good enough. It craves to be “Dawn of the Dead”, but the direction is lifeless and bereft of any weight.
All this said, I do suggest eventually renting the movie since there is one truly great element to find pleasure in. Bill Murray’s supporting role is an absolute delight. His performance and the material he’s working with rises above the pedestrian level of everything else in the picture. If the movie had been up to Murray’s greatness, I’d have been singing a much different tune. I’m not, though. Instead of belting out “Yellow Rose of Texas”, I’m just a-humming “Old Black Joe”.