Bringing newness to a subgenre as stale as zombies is a difficult task for any filmmaker. What Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) slyly attempts with Warm Bodies is to not even try. Instead of making a zombie movie with romantically comedic overtones, the writer director does the opposite, crafting a heartwarming and earnest romantic comedy where one of the mains happens to be among the walking dead. Up against his earlier works Warm Bodies falls short, though it’s still an amusing distraction for most of its running time.
Kid actor made good Nicholas Hoult, as lovestruck zombie R, is undoubtedly the best asset Warm Bodies has going for it – injecting much of the film’s heart throughout and solidifying his performance chops with a starmaking turn. Hoult’s role has potential to be a disaster as he’s essentially Bub from Day of the Dead for 90% of the film (save for a sly inner-monologue narration cheat that’s employed throughout the film). But where Bub’s development in Day is confined to Romero’s predetermined structure rules, Bodies sees R going in reverse, starting out dead and transforming into something resembling human. Hoult stays conscious of the above-mentioned narration and in doing so you often find his onset performance interacting with the one he gave in a sound recording booth.
It’s an interesting concept that, adapted from author Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name, is fruitful territory for film on both surface and thematic levels. For starters, the notion of a zombie transitioning back to life is an intriguing one, and if you can stick with the premise there’s a very tangible and touching throughline in R’s journey as a character. Thematically, the intimation that love brings us back to life, waking us from our nightmares and bringing us out of the ether, is hardly trivial. Hoult’s chemistry with love interest Teresa Palmer (here as Julie, a survivor of Zombie Armageddon and daughter of one of the figurehead zombie killers) is palpable.
The danger you run in such a simplistic premise, especially one so identifiably derivative of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is that Warm Bodies will feel terribly on the nose for anyone who has even a baseline remembrance of 9th Grade English. Levine brings his trademark indie quirk out early and often, but it’s never enough to keep a thought-provoking premise from feeling very familiar and even overtly safe at times – and it’s one of a few elements that keep a serviceable film from being truly engaging and never realizing its true potential.
Indeed, love saves, but arriving at that point is often a bitch. It feels odd to complain that, in an era of cinema so besieged with grime and grit, Warm Bodies’ almost saccharine approach to falling in love is counterintuitive. Love is dangerous, and the danger inherent with allowing oneself to get close to an entity that finds your brains delicious is woefully underrepresented. It’s actually all too easy for these characters to get together. Even the way they’re paired in the beginning is highly dubious – R kidnaps Julie while she and other survivors are out on a supply run for base camp. This is right after R eats Julie’s lover’s brains out, yet she’s all too eager to accompany R on the long journey back to his hideout. I typically hate griping about the minutia of a romantic comedy, but in a film where the object of affection can easily and wisely outrun you to safety, it feels false when the two are listening to records ten minutes after such a grizzly first encounter.
Palmer is serviceable even if her role is a relatively common trope for a flick of this ilk. Dave Franco never gets a chance to unfurl his brand of prickishness in his confined role. Of the supporters, it’s Rob Coddry and John Malkovich bringing the goods. Coddry gives a terrific turn as the zombie best friend of R, and Malkovich plays Julie’s father as pragmatic and dangerous leader in what feels welcome but out of place in such a lighthearted film.
Where Bodies mostly hits as a romantic effort, its comedy status is much spottier. It’s not so much funny as it is cutesy – this isn’t a film that’ll have you rolling in the aisles, though it’s never droll.
Warm Bodies is a satisfying effort that, given the setup, loses points for being too straightforward. The leads come together for a solidly romantic piece that works as both a charming distraction and a cute date movie, but it’s no Shaun of the Dead. Levine takes a step back from loftier fare like Wackness and 50/50 and in doing so he also takes a very minor step down. A decidedly safe picture. Though, as far as safe pictures go, it’s still one of the better ones.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars