Tongue-in-cheek hu­mor fades into ‘Zom­bieland’

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go See - By John Bei­fuss

bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

Ac­cord­ing to movie tra­di­tion, a bul­let to the brain can drop a zom­bie. The typ­i­cally less lethal pres­ence of Bill Mur­ray, how­ever, is all that is needed to stop “Zom­bieland” dead in its tracks.

Usu­ally an on­screen MVP, Mur­ray ap­pears as him­self at the mid­point of “Zom­bieland,” in a comic episode that must have seemed cheeky and funny on the page but comes across as smug and winky in the flesh; worse, the teenage lead char­ac­ter’s ca­sual re­ac­tion to the tragedy that fol­lows Mur­ray’s ar­rival con­tra­dicts his ear­lier pre­sen­ta­tion as a thought­ful and sym­pa­thetic young hero. Con­sis­tency is thrown aside for the sake of an elab­o­rate in-joke with a cruel punch­line.

From this point on, the movie sham­bles down­hill, cul­mi­nat­ing in a rote ode to to­geth­er­ness that rep­re­sents the worst sort of cyn­i­cal pan­der­ing. (It’s OK to laugh at blood and gore if the en­trails are tied into a neat bow around a moist pack­age la­beled “fam­ily.”) Too bad, be­cause “Zom­bieland” be­gins with a bang, drop­ping the viewer like a ball dropped onto a foos­ball board smack dab into the mid­dle of a post-plague Amer­ica over­run by the rav­en­ous liv­ing dead.

We are in­tro­duced to this danger­ous world through the voiceover nar­ra­tion of a vir­ginal young man dubbed “Colum­bus,” played by Jesse Eisen­berg in what is es­sen­tially a re­peat of his per­for­mance in the year’s ear­lier “-land” movie, “Ad­ven­ture­land.” A brainy loner who suf­fers from coul­ro­pho­bia (the fear of clowns — a played-for-laughs anx­i­ety that has be­come a movie and TV cliché), the once meek Colum­bus has man­aged to sur­vive in what he calls “the United States of Zom­bieland” by ad­her­ing to an elab­o­rate set of self-pre­scribed rules (“Rule No. 2 — Be­ware of Bath­rooms”), which ap­pear on­screen as some­times an­i­mated graph­ics.

Even­tu­ally, the wary Colum­bus hooks up with the cow­boy-like “Tal­la­has­see” (Woody Har­rel­son) and a pair of sis­ters, beau­ti­ful “Wi­chita” (Emma Stone, who re­sem­bles a tougher and younger Mila Ku­nis) and tween-age “Lit­tle Rock” (Abi­gail Bres­lin, the for­mer “Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine”). The fi­nale re­turns Eisen­berg to an “Ad­ven­ture­land”-like amuse­ment park, where the char­ac­ters are re­quired to be­have like morons to put them­selves in harm’s way for the sake of “sus­pense.”

Di­rected by fea­ture new­comer Ruben Fleis­cher from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wer­nick, “Zom­bieland” de­liv­ers more splat­terific slap­stick vi­o­lence in its first 10 min­utes than “Night of the Liv­ing Dead”— the movie that jump-started the still-thriv­ing flesh-eat­ing zom­bie genre 40 years ago — did dur­ing its en­tire length. Bul­lets to the head noth­with­stand­ing, zom­bies threaten to never die; de­spite their late start, they now ri­val vam­pires as moviedom’s most en­dur­ing mon­sters.

Glen Wil­son Columbia Pic­tures

Emma Stone, Woody Har­rel­son, Jesse Eisen­berg and Abi­gail Bres­lin in­habit “Zom­bieland.”

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