Like a kid mashing two busted up action figures together, Jonathan Levine manages to have a lot of fun with the withered husks of the romantic and zombie comedy genres. Featuring a mashup script on autopilot that combines the bare essentials of both, Warm Bodies pumps a bit of fresh blood through the zom-com corpse almost purely by virtue of Levine’s sure direction, and his collaboration with his two stars. Hoult and Palmer cut a nice couple, even when one is covered in goo and the other is a sharp-featured corpse. In fact, Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer may end up being the hottest movie couple of the year. I’m skeptical a zombiefied guy keeps his parts in working order though, so the slashfic for this one is gonna be weird. It’s not nothing that Hoult and Palmer play out a touching and believable (enough) romance arc that, were it not layered with undead novelty, would be positively eye-rolling. The list of strengths ends here abruptly but, since we can also punctuate it with “brisk,” it’s ultimately just enough to call Warm Bodies a success.
What you’re likely to first notice about Warm Bodies is how shamelessly it rides a Wall•E Of The Dead vibe to start, complete with our cutely degraded hero, R, shuffling about his lonely world each day before retiring to a hovel filled with his accumulated junk (vinyl records and books and nerd-friendly DVDs of course!). Soon a pretty girl enters the picture and this clumsy loner finds himself instantly in love and feeling a bit of a pulse. Despite murdering and devouring her boyfriend, R manages to save this girl from his zombie brethren and guides her through his world while planting seeds of love in her heart. Though all this we also learn that zombies in this world are only half-zombies really, and an entirely separate horde of creatures that have lost all remaining humanity co-exist with them, aggressively looking for prey.
In a story about love slowly reversing zombification, you can imagine why a second layer of evil creatures will eventually become convenient.
By sheer coincidence, R has managed to befriend Julie, daughter of the militant leader of the remaining humans, aka John Malkovich. Props to the D.P. for managing to always crop out the phone Malkovich must have always been carrying just out of frame. The story plods along as you might expect, with R and Juile spending just enough time with each other to spark an almost “thing” before Julie splits to bring the weird news to the humans. Dump a truckload of etceteras here and let’s move on.
Levine, who both wrote and directed, was clearly not oblivious to the triteness of the beats this zomb-com story (based on a novel by Isaac Marion) relies on, and as a whole they develop into a nice subversion of the whole nerd-falling-in-love story. Basically the film is a very cute piss-take of all kinds of romantic clichés, from the gruff father to the being-goofy montage to the one-night makeover. Everything moves along with a wink and a smile, and the film tends to be better at being funny than scary. That said, Hoult’s charmingly delivered and self-effacing narration provides a lot of the zingers, which makes the film as a whole feel a bit cheap. Meanwhile the post-apocalyptic horror stakes are thin at best- the action climax in particular relying on exceptionally brainless logic to ensure the group that needs to fight the things meet at the bad place at the time when the guy needs to realize the stuff. Levine –the director behind The Wackness and 50/50– is no slouch at selling characters, and by the time the high-concept of the film starts to rattle on the rails he’s made sure you’re good and invested in these people of varying deadnesses enough that you don’t begrudge the film its third-act conveniences.
Other bits of character pepper the film- Rob Corddry lights up each of the few minutes on the screen and seems to have improv’d enough great one liners that virtually every one of his jokes land. Dave Franco continues to excel at being a smarmy douche, while Analeigh Tipton gets decent mileage out of being the cute, skeptical best friend. Though too budget-limited to do much interesting visualization of the post-apocalypse (it’s mostly just oppressively gray), it does add a cool idea or two (presumably carried over from the novel) to the zombie film canon. The means by which R munches his way through some background on Julia, for example, is quite fun.
Let’s settle back on “cute” for the whole thing though- aggressively appealing to almost anyone. It’s scary without being dangerous and romantic without being insufferable, and likely to be one of the most well-calibrated date movies 2013 will produce.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Read Tim’s take on the film here.