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Cinema

Land of the Lost.

Ever wonder what Shaun of the Dead would’ve been like if it had been an American studio film? Well, I suspect it’d have been bigger and broader in every facet of the game. It’d have more action, more violence, more bodily humor, more star wattage. And it’d probably be less droll, less unconventional, and less memorable. In short, it would probably have been much like Ruben Fleischer’s well-meaning but frothy Zombieland. Don’t get me wrong — Zombieland is a decently fun Friday night, and most of the audience clearly enjoyed it more than I did. But it felt very by-the-numbers to me, and I suspect I’ll remember very little about it after a few weeks, even if the dread zombie apocalypse doesn’t happen between now and then.

So, what’s the rumpus? Well, after a quick breakdown of the rules of surviving said zompocalypse (For example, “Rule 1: Cardio…Fatties die first“), Zombieland basically follows the travails of five of the last humans on Earth. There’s:

  • Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbishy UT student who survived the initial outbreak mostly by dint of being an OCD Warcraft shut-in. (Eisenberg has put in some good performances in movies like Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale, but he’s slumming it here. In fact, I like them both, but Zombieland makes a strong case for staging a “two-man-enter-one-man-leave” arena deathmatch between Eisenberg and Michael Cera. They’re becoming redundant.)

  • Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a Twinkie-loving good-ole-boy who’s atoning for a family tragedy by cutting a swath through the undead and being damn good at it. (Harrelson seems to be channeling his Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers again — not sure what it says that the same guy’s gone from being creepy lunatic anti-hero in NBK to unironic, even compassionate hero here. Tone is everything, I guess.)

  • Wichita (Emma Stone), an alluring grifter (she’s basically Mila Kunis’ character from Extract) who’ll double-cross everyone around and do whatever she has to to protect her little sister. (I started thinking of her as Left 4 Dead‘s Zoey after about five minutes of screentime.)

  • Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), said little sister, wise beyond her years yet still really looking forward to a trip to Pacific Playland (a.k.a. Wally World.) (FWIW Breslin, most memorable as Little Miss Sunshine, seems to have made it across the child-star gap that swallowed Jake Lloyd, Haley Jo Osment, and Jonathan Lipnicki whole, and appears to be settling well into a young-Jodie Foster vibe.) And…

  • “Hollywood” (Semi-Secret Cameo), a movie star who the first four encounter along their road trip. As most other reviews have noted, this extended second-act sequence is probably the highlight of the film, and the biggest laugh I enjoyed was when this character is asked at one point about his/her regrets. Still, I also found this section not as funny as it’s being made out to be, for the same reason — my bro and I have a long-standing argument about this — that I don’t much like Family Guy and think Robot Chicken is lame: Just making some random pop-culture reference willy nilly — oh, yeah! I recognize that! — isn’t, to my mind, all that funny. (Imho, the South Park guys pinned this problem to the wall with their classic manatee episode.) Similarly, just recreating moments from this particular star’s back catalog, as happens a few times here, just feels sorta ho-hum to me.

    I’ll concede that I’m probably being harder on Zombieland than it deserves. It’s a harmless thrill-ride-type entertainment, and I’ll bet it was quite a bit better than a lot of the past summer’s tentpole releases, most of which I skipped. (I’m looking at you, X-Men Joeformers: Salvation.) Still, maybe I’m just an insufferable zombie-snob — this isn’t The Walking Dead or World War Z by any means — but I left Zombieland feeling underwhelmed. To me, it just felt by-the-numbers, with a tired “family is what you make it” plot and a certain laziness — how is the power on everywhere, by the way? — about it. And if anything, the zombies, never once very frightening, seem like a plot convenience more than anything else.

    Also, it’s hard to escape the nagging sensation that this movie is basically just Shaun of the Dead for mooks. This feeling isn’t helped by the earlier-mentioned Family Guy-isms, or the Beavis-and-Butthead-y “I like breakin’ things!” messaging of the middle-going. (Sometimes it’s not even Fleischer’s fault — On its own, the slo-mo credit sequence is good, imaginative fun, but it also can’t help but recall the very similar Watchmen opening, which then involuntarily brings to mind the current mook-King of Hollywood, Zack Snyder.)

    Lemme put it this way: Throughout the movie, the previously-established Zombie Rules — “Beware of Bathrooms,” “Double-Tap,” “Don’t be a Hero” — will flash up on the screen whenever they become pertinent. This often gives Zombieland the feel of the introductory levels — “Press X to jump” — of a not-very-interactive xBox game. And, while I can’t say I had a bad time at Zombieland, it’s hard to shake the sense that that 81 minutes would’ve been much better spent at home, playing Left 4 Dead. Now there’s a zombie-killing quartet I can get behind.

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