In the past week, I’ve seen two Jesse Eisenberg movies, one called Adventureland and one called Zombieland. I’m sensing a pattern here. Next he should try something in the middle of the alphabet… Neverland, maybe.
In the course of that week, Eisenberg has quickly become one of my favorite young actors. I don’t know how much of a range he has but like Michael Cera, to whom he is constantly (and understandably) compared, the comic sweet spot he hits is perfectly on target.
Columbus, Eisenberg’s character in Zombieland, is a more neurotic version of Adventureland‘s James. Isolated from human contact, he spends most of his time playing video games. Which turns out the be the perfect situation for somebody hoping to survive the zombie apocalypse.
It’s not strictly accurate to call the beasties in this film zombies, as they aren’t undead. They are human beings turned into flesh-eating monsters through a mutant strain of mad cow disease. A bite from one of these bile-spewing mutants will infect the uninfected. Several months after the initial outbreak, pretty much the whole world has fallen prey to the virus, and those who haven’t are now prey, period.
A nebbish like Columbus manages to survive by following a lengthy list of rules he has committed to memory (and a little notepad). Rules such as “fasten your seat belt,” “always check the back seat,” “limber up” and “don’t be a hero.” His first two rules are “Cardio,” as in be prepared to run for your life at a moment’s notice, and “The Double Tap,” which presumes that it takes more than one shot to drop a zombie, so you should always put one in the brain.
First-time director Ruben Fleischer makes wonderful use of these rules throughout the film, displaying them as boldfaced type that interacts with the scenery. The same technique is used in the opening credits sequence (one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory), as frightened people run through the letters of the credits to escape ravenous zombies. Fleischer has style to burn, and makes especially effective use of slow-motion. Based on the critical reception to Zombieland, and its first weekend box office, he should have a nice career ahead of him.
Zombieland is first and foremost a comedy, though a decidedly gruesome one, particularly in its first 30 minutes. During those opening sequences, you find yourself watching through your hand, afraid of what might jump out or who might go zombie. But once Columbus meets Tallahassee (the characters refer to each other by city of origin so as not to get too close), a charmingly immature rogue played by the fabulous Woody Harrelson, the scary stuff falls by the wayside and the film becomes one of the funniest buddy comedies I’ve seen in years.
Tallahassee and Columbus are about as mis-matched a pair as you can imagine. Picture Woody Allen and Bruce Willis paired up in a violent action film and you’ll get the idea. Tallahassee views killing zombies as a challenge to be enjoyed, and dispatches of them using everything from a pair of garden shears to a banjo. He’s all id while Columbus is all superego.
Joining the party are Wichita and Little Rock, conniving sisters played by Emma Stone (the refreshing, husky-voiced young actress first seen in Superbad) and Abigail Breslin, who has amassed quite a winning resume since her Oscar-nominated debut in Little Miss Sunshine. After getting over some initial trust issues, the group heads west to a Los Angeles amusement park rumored to be zombie-free.
I won’t give away more than that, and really there’s not much more to give away. This isn’t a plot-heavy film. It coasts on big laughs, strong performances and wildly enjoyable zombie-slaying mayhem. It also contains a surreal, hilarious sequence set in a Beverly Hills mansion that features a cameo I won’t discuss except to say I wish they had an Oscar category for walk-ons.
Zombieland isn’t for everybody. The opening scenes will likely send the squeamish into the aisles. But those who stick it out will be rewarded with one of the most original, hilarious movies I’ve seen in years.