There are several big laughs in Zombieland - more than in any of the other big films opening this week.
So why doesn't Zombieland feel satisfying? It comes close: It entertains regularly, if not consistently. And the script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, finds a new spin on the whole zombie craze.
Ultimately, however, director Ruben Fleischer has to honor the horror half of the horror-comedy equation. And that slows the movie down every time.
The narrator-hero is Columbus (all characters are named for their hometowns), played with wonderfully jittery politesse by Jesse Eisenberg. Columbus has managed to survive the fast-acting virus that turned much of America into a ravening horde of the flesh-eating undead. In this world, the zombies don't shamble along relentlessly but, rather, sprint after their prey. Hence, Columbus's first rule: Work on your cardio.
Columbus has many more rules, because he tends to be an OCD kind of guy: things like always wear your seatbelt, don't be a hero and avoid bathrooms (zombies know no boundaries and you don't want to get caught with your pants down).
Columbus is trying to get from his Texas college town back to Ohio, in hopes of finding his parents alive. He teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), whose only quests are to kill more zombies in creative ways - and to track down a Hostess Twinkie that hasn't passed its sell-by date. Eventually, they cross paths with Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who turn out to be a sister team of con artists. The four of them head for California, where the girls have heard that Pacific Playland amusement park is actually a zombie-free zone.
But there's a basic Darwinian problem with all zombie movies, including Zombieland, and that's the zombie concept itself: It's kill or be killed. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
There are only so many interesting ways to kill a zombie and this movie finds all of them. But the threat from zombies is never that interesting - certainly not as interesting as the threat from other sentient beings. The best moments in Zombieland have nothing to do with the zombies; they're about the distrust between survivors and the calculations that humans must make about where their compassion ends and their survival instinct kicks in.
The biggest laughs involve the humans, not the zombies. OK, wait - yes, there are a couple of laugh-out-loud, gross-out moments of zombie destruction. But most of the funniest stuff isn't about zombies.
Eisenberg works yet another interesting variation on characters he's played in the past: brainy, timid, sarcastic and, in this case, quick on the trigger with a double-barreled shotgun. He and Harrelson have an easy comedy-team timing - and the two of them make a nice counterpoint to the offbeat, straight-man (woman?) rhythms of Stone and Breslin.
So, yes, I came away from Zombieland wanting more comedy and less gratuitous splatter. Still, you can't dismiss a movie with as many big laughs as this one packs, even when it's as inconsistent as Zombieland.
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