Brandon's Word: Zombieland is Like an Unexpected One-Night-Stand
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 1, 2009
Zombieland is not Shaun of the Dead. It isn't supposed to be; it isn't trying to be; it's a film unto itself. There. Now that that's out of the way, we can continue.
Zombieland is, above all, a lot of fun. In a world overrun by zombies (the fast, sentient kind), a group of archetypes have found a way to survive using their respective talents, whether that be running away and limbering up before said running or confronting each flesh-eating problem head-on through the sight of an AK - whatever works to stay alive. It's a horror comedy that's heavy on the comedy, light on the horror, and with a bizarre garnish of hopefulness, which, when presented along side a post-apocalyptic setting, felt, well, weird. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, two TV veterans, Zombieland is Ruben Fleischer's directorial debut. And it's a hell of a way to start his feature directing career.
Because, as I said, Zombieland is a lot of fun. It's packed with laughs more akin to sitcom-style comedy; it's loaded with great, inventive kill scenes; it's inhabited by instantly likable characters doing immediately relatable things set on a road trip that very well could have lasted twelve hours - or, well, at least one solid TV season. And therein lies my one gripe with the film: it shouldn't be film - Zombieland is a television show masquerading as a movie. While fun, it's the kind of fun that is meaningless. Like an unexpected one-night-stand - it's definitely satisfying in the moment, the rush of emotions is a welcome distraction from the otherwise even keel of the usual, and the climax of it all feels great. But after it's over, well, it doesn't mean anything. I was left longing for more, because what we had was great. There might have been something even greater if I'd just learned her name, asked a few more questions, gotten to know her favorite book rather than just her favorite position-- wait, Zombieland. Right. Zombieland is unfortunately slight. It's not particularly insightful and it's not particularly memorable for anything but that hour and a half of debauchery, but I don't think it's trying to be anything more than that. In that, it does succeed.
What Zombieland does best is give us Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock, its characters. Played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin, respectively, these survivors are a motley crew of unlikely heroes (and heroines). They clash in all the right ways and compliment one another perfectly when needed. Columbus, the wuss, acts as the film's narrator and adheres to a strict list of rules that have, thus far, enabled him to survive. These rules appear as titles superimposed on screen throughout the film. Every time they're mentioned. Every time the action is performed. Every time the audience hasn't laughed in a while. While sometimes a great visual gag, I couldn't help but get annoyed with the same gag's frequency. Then again, spaced out over the course of a television season, I can see them being a great running joke - but I'm back to the TV talk again.
Woody Harrelson turns out a spectacularly zany, unexpectedly heartfelt performance. As Columbus's foil, Tallahassee is a brilliant rough-and-tumble archetype that never failed to make me laugh. And Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin both give good, though superficial, performances. As sisters, they're all they've got in the world, and they're determined to survive by any means necessary. The four major players in Zombieland are very much a cast meant to be recurring, evolving characters. But, since Zombieland is a film, it never really gives us more than each one of their schticks supported by a lone flashback explaining just why they are the way they are. It's enough, again, to get me through to the end, but I couldn't help wanting more.
It might be unclear thus far that I did like the film, because, don't mistake, I did like the film. It's just that the idea of Zombieland had so much more potential that what is accessible on screen. And it's ultimate downfall is that Zombieland was, indeed, originally meant for the small screen. It's a TV show that got shoehorned into theatres. And for that, it turned out pretty great. But from TV script to feature screenplay, it was never able to shake off and evolve beyond its intended eventuality. There are great running jokes throughout the film, but they're robbed of their spontaneity and inventiveness because they're overused in such quick succession. Instead of a week's span between them, they happen every fifteen minutes.
There's an undoubtedly superb cameo in the film that had me in stitches (and is reason enough to see the film), but I couldn't help thinking afterward how great that would have been as a guest spot for sweeps week. The whole scene plays out like a mini-episode anyway. The film as a whole feels decidedly disjointed, like episodes spot welded together. And, as I said, though the characters are great, they are characters meant to be explored over a longer period of time than what Zombieland allows. They're characters I could see myself visiting every week, following them on the next leg of their adventure toward Pacific Playland, watching them get into and out of trouble with another group of zombies. Zombieland is all of the above, but it's truncated and condensed and because of that it all comes off as a bit too much and a lot too little at the same time.
Again, while in the theatre, I had a blast. Though I might not have felt any dread for the characters or even particularly cared about the plot (they're all venturing westward in search of a zombie-free area and the theme park Pacific Playland), the violence is satisfying and the laughs are aplenty. But, like a one-night-stand, it's now a distant memory of a really great night without any emotional baggage or lasting effect.
Zombieland is an escapist gem with a rockin' soundtrack and a piano falling on top of a zombie's head, but nothing more. And I'm okay with that. You should be, too. 'Cause at least it's a great night out, something to talk about the next day over a beer and a Twinkie (’cause you'll crave ’em afterward). And with Zombieland, you don't even have to wear protection. Guiltless, bloody, raucous fun for the whole family (above the age of 17, that is). Just don't expect it to be weighing on your mind a week from now. Unless it calls to say that in nine months little Zombieland 2 will be arriving. In that case, mazel tov!