Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Movie Review: Zombieland

Zombieland *** ½
Directed By:
Ruben Fleischer.
Written By: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus), Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee), Emma Stone (Wichita), Abigail Breslin (Little Rock), Amber Heard (406), Bill Murray (Himself).

Does the zombie genre have anything left to offer us? Recently I saw the latest George A. Romero zombie movie, Survival of the Dead, and even he seems to be running low on ideas on what to do with the undead. In the recent Norwegian film, Dead Snow, they came up with the genius idea of Nazi zombies, but ended up making a supremely entertaining film, but one that did not bring anything new to the table. But Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland really does make the zombie film feel new and exciting again. Sure, it does not reinvent the wheel or anything, but what it does, it does brilliantly well. This is the most fun I have had at the movies in ages.

The movie opens with Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) filling us in on the rules he has on how to survive a zombie outbreak – and there are a lot of them, at current count 31. They include sensible things like being good at cardio, limbering up and wearing seatbelts. And also things like the double tap. Make sure to put an extra bullet into the head of a zombie just to make sure its dead. While most of Texas has turned into a desolate wasteland, where only zombies survive, Columbus has remained uninfected, mainly because he has no real friends or family, meaning he never let anyone get close enough to him to bite him. Now on the road to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio from Texas, he hopes his parents will be okay, even if he was never all that close to them in the first place. This is where he meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), his polar opposite.

If Columbus has survived the zombie outbreak by being over cautious with his rules, than Tallahassee has survived by being really good at killing zombies. He takes unnecessary risks, but always comes through unscathed because he kills zombies really well. He hates them with a passion because they killed his dog Buck. Now, he lives just to kill them. Tallahassee and Columbus are joined by two sisters – Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who have survived because they trust no one. They get the upper hand on the two men not once but twice, by simply outsmarting them. But gradually, these four people form a bond – a trust – between them that lets them get through the outbreak together.

From the opening scene, Zombieland establishes its irreverent comedic tone and doesn’t let up for the entire running time of the movie. Columbus narrates the action, and in his pop culture infused, paranoid, hilarious rantings, we find that we actually quite like the dumb schmuck. The rest of the cast falls in the same way. Woody Harrelson is one of those actors whose grin can somehow be simultaneously goofy and creepy. He hasn’t been handed a lead role this good in a number of years, and he completely owns Tallahassee. Emma Stone continues her emergence as one of the best comedic actresses out there right now, giving Wichita a sexy, dangerous vibe on top, and a kittenish softness underneath. And Abigail Breslin proves that really, there is nothing she cannot do as a child actress. She is smart and funny, and no nearly as annoying or precocious as most child actresses are. She fits in with the rest of the cast.

What elevates Zombieland above most comedies is that it is consistently smart and funny. The characters do stupid things, sure (why the hell would you turn on all the lights at an amusement park in the dead of night when you are surrounded by the undead?), but the movie seems to know that its characters are stupid, and play into that. The brilliant sequence at Bill Murray’s house is among the best in any movie this year, giving Murray a chance to ham it up, and enjoy himself like he hasn’t in a while. I love the new, more serious Murray, but part of me will always be the kid who loved Ghostbusters, and loves to see Murray do this kind of work as well.

The film is directed by first timer Ruben Flesicher, from a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, two writers who mostly worked on TV shows before this. But you wouldn’t know that these guys weren’t veterans. The writing is continuously smart and funny throughout, and the direction is willing to go just as far over the top as the actors do. Zombieland is one of the year’s most entertaining films.

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