Thursday, January 31, 2013

Man on Film: Warm Bodies

If ever there were a high-concept film that could be made in the here and now that would be a nearly sure-fire hit, it would be Warm Bodies, which could be aptly pitched with just the following five words:
Romeo and Juliet with zombies.
That movie, especially when you cast Nicholas Hoult of Skins* and X-Men: First Class as Zombie Romeo (or R, as he's named in the film), will find its ravenous fans in the teenage girl demographic regardless of how well the film is realized. It is whether it is executed well and intelligently that would determine whether or not it will find a following outside of that demographic.

*The original British version and the first two awesome seasons. 

One could easily posit the query is it actually necessary to make another zombie movie with the logical corollary question as to whether or not another clever zombie movie is necessary. After all, there is a glut of all things zombie, especially since The Walking Dead is out there--a show I stopped watching part way through the turgid second season, but that is neither here nor there. There is also a glut of young-adult romance set in and around the supernatural playground, but I'm sure I do not need to call your attention to that.

Thankfully, Warm Bodies brings more to the table than similarly targeted supernatural teen schlock. In the form of R, the audience gets a protagonist zombie mired existential tumult and post-human malaise. He is discontent with his state of being, wracked with insecurity and sadness stemming from his desire to recapture his humanity, as the zombie lifestyle is unfulfilling to him.

This post-human depression is played to mostly comedic effect, and for the most part it works. It is clever. It doesn't really cross over the line of being clever to the point of cloying. It owes a lot of this to the fact that in Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies has an extremely capable lead. To many, the knowledge of his body of work is limited to just his small role as young Henry McCoy in X-Men: First Class and the vague recollection upon prompting that he was titular "boy" in About a Boy. Anyone who has seen him in Skins would assume he is capable of virtually anything*. Here, he has the weight of the film on his shoulders, and he carries it with ease.

*I've also heard nothing but glowing accolades for his small role in A Single Man, but I've not seen it.

To talk so much of just Hoult's performance would be to do a disservice to director/screenwriter Jonathan Levine, who has struck the right chords on his second straight outing following the wonderful 50/50 in which he also managed to avoid all the pitfalls that cancer dramedies. Levine seems to be showing an ability to walk that fine line on projects that could easily veer into schlocky crapfests with a single misstep. Obviously he's working from Isaac Marion's source material, the 2010 novel by the same name, but a lesser director--I'm thinking of Peter Care, who dismally adapted the brilliant novel The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys in 2002--likely blows it, and when it doesn't work, it is usually an unmitigated disaster.

Now I've talked for quite some time about the film without getting to the biggest potential problem, at least for the demographic that I belong to. This is a zombie/human Romeo and Juliet story. I didn't really know that going in. If I had, it's quite possible that I would have passed on the free screening. Superficially, this sounds an awful lot like Twilight without the triangle (and overt Mormon subtexts). Where Warm Bodies differs is that it is actually clever. Where Twilight lost any potential to be even remotely appealing past the teen girl and ignored housewife demographics was in its ridiculous earnestness with which it treated its abusive relationship. There is nothing that actually happens that would lead anyone other than the already faithful followers to believe that the two romantic leads (I'll not deign to mention them by name) actually love each other. They are preposterously serious all the time.

For starters, one can actually believe that R and Julie (Teresa Palmer previously of I Am Number Four, Take Me Home Tonight, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice) grew to love each other, rather than just telling us that they did. Everything feels earned. The audience are not treated like they are fools. Rather, they are treated with a modicum of respect.

Probably most importantly, Warm Bodies is funny. Between the soundtrack choices, R's hoarding, every fractured line that comes out of M's (Rob Corddry) mouth, and R's neurotic and endearing voice-over, Warm Bodies has a surprising amount of good working in its favor. It is by no means a perfect film (its message is more than a little hokey), but it's quite good for the genre in which it chooses to exist. It didn't take any more than about five minutes to get its hooks in with its employment of John Waite's "Missing You," but from then on, it kept bringing a healthy dose of fun which is what sets it apart. Warm Bodies is fun.


Stan Earnest said...

Please tell me Nicolas Cage played the "Bill Murray" role in this one.

Josh Duggan said...

If only.

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