Tongue-in-cheek humor fades into ‘Zombieland’
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.
Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin inhabit “Zombieland.”