Mashups are overstaying their welcome, and not just in the music world. We rode that pop culture wave that reveled in mixing two seemingly incompatible texts. The ones that worked fed off each other to create something new and exciting.
Take, for instance, Shaun of the Dead, in which Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg enhanced the template of a George Romero living dead yarn with droll, idiosyncratic English wit. The result: an irresistible comedy, blessed with endless replay value, that doesn’t skimp on the gore. In 2010, Seattle-based author Isaac Marion tried his hand at a high-concept undead story, this time bringing together the post-apocalyptic landscapes of I Am Legend and 28 Days Later with a Romeo and Juliet-flavored romance that owes as much to John Hughes as it does to Shakespeare.
The next year Marion expanded his short story “I Am a Zombie Filled with Love,” an Internet sensation, into a novel that retained its source material’s first-person narrative. The internal monologue of a lovestruck undead lad might have jumped off the page to the book’s admirers, but in the movie version of Warm Bodies, it’s a superfluous running commentary that spells out things that should remain unmentioned. Its snarky tone also puts it squarely at odds with the more earnest film it’s trying to be.
Our protagonist (About a Boy‘s Nicholas Hoult) doesn’t remember his name, only that it started with an R. (R it is, then.) You know the drill: Mysterious virus wipes out most of humanity, forcing the remainder to wall themselves up to separate themselves from the zombie menace. The story kicks into gear when R and a group of formerly human flesh eaters ambush a group of volunteers searching for supplies. R locks eyes with Julie (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Teresa Palmer), and some quick thinking allows him to save her. He hides her away in his humble abode –an airliner that, like its resident, gives off heavy Wall-E vibes – telling her it’s not safe to leave and withholding a crucial piece of information regarding her late boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco).
The ensuing courtship is driven by uninspired song choices and the occasional, curiously bloodless narrow escape. And just when you think Warm Bodies is on the verge of becoming engaging, Hoult’s intrusive mental yapping rears its unwelcome head and ruins the mood. Couldn’t his internal musings be grunts like all the other zombies?
It would be tempting to place the blame on the hack behind the camera, only Warm Bodies wasn’t made by a hack. The movie was adapted for the screen and directed by Jonathan Levine, whose previous effort, the deeply affecting cancer-themed dramedy 50/50, found both humor and pathos and TV-movie-of-the-week fodder. In Warm Bodies, he tones down Marion’s grim universe to satisfy the legion of Twihards the film’s ad campaign aggressively tries to lure. The creative team behind AMC’s The Walking Dead has been similarly toning down Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels, but even they are aware that no zombie apocalypse is complete without a little slice-and-dice mayhem.
The closest that Warm Bodies comes to having a character that would seem right at home in the splatterfests that inspired it is Mr. Grigio, Julie’s dad and the leader of her walled-off society. As played by a disappointingly one-dimensional John Malkovich, Grigio’s personality is an amalgam of survival instinct and bad parenting skills. The wall that separates both worlds, threatened by the notion that the zombies might actually be starting to rediscover their lost humanity, amounts to little more than a metaphor for the intergenerational divide. There are no villains here, suggests Levine, relegating the antagonist duties to CGI skeletal wraiths (the zombies’ ultimate fate) that look and act like refugees from a subpar video game.
The cast deserved better, particularly Rob Corddry, who steals the show as R’s best friend, called – wait for it – M. Unburdened by bis co-star’s tiresome voiceover narration, the actor delivers his best work since having left The Daily Show, something he achieves by taking his character arc seriously and refusing to settle for an easy laugh. In his limited amount of screen time, Franco also makes a good impression. The rest of the players in Levine’s touchy-feely post-apocalyptic are less fortunate. They’re enslaved by the trappings of Warm Bodies‘ watered-down genre mashup, one I’m hopeful its target audience will give the cold shoulder.
Levine’s mismatched couple might not always act like fully-fleshed individuals, but their relative maturity stands in stark contrast to the bickering middle-aged babies in Anne Fontaine’s My Worst Nightmare. This crass and obnoxious comedy continues a distressing trend in French cinema: stories in which uncultured swine make fun of the stuck-up bourgeoisie and are celebrated as heroes because of it. The Intouchables, that wildly overpraised sleeper hit, resonated with stateside audiences this past summer. (Its award-season streak, thankfully, screeched to a halt when it failed to nab a Foreign Language Oscar nod.) In that insufferable buddy comedy, an arrogant Senegalese immigrant teaches the quadriplegic sophisticate who hires him as his caretaker the true meaning of friendship, which, naturally includes fast cars, hang gliding and chauvinist taunts.
To Fontaine’s credit, she’s more conscious of the cringe-worthy sleaze that deadbeat dad Patrick Demeuleu (Benoît Poelvoorde) wears like a badge of honor. That doesn’t stop the prolific director, however, from indulging in some tasteless jokes at the expense of well-to-do couple Agathe Novic (Isabelle Huppert) and François Dambreville (André Dussollier), who hires the uncouth handyman to fix up their apartment after realizing their boys know each other at school.
Why did Fontaine have to make Agathe, who runs an art gallery and eventually agrees to help Patrick prevent Social Services from taking his son, such a frigid snob? And what do French women see in Dussollier? He’s kind of slimy, albeit in a refined way, which suits his character, a book publisher stuck in a loveless relationship, just fine. I still don’t get his silver daddy appeal.
The first half of My Worst Nightmare unfolds at a rapid clip, but the film ultimately loses its focus, and its sense of purpose, well before the preordained, wholly implausible conclusion. “I’m toxic for you,” Patrick tells a bewildered Agathe. No kidding. Before the movie is over, Huppert’s character rediscovers her dormant sex drive through a series of humiliating events that at one point involve pole dancing. This isn’t so much liberating as simply emblematic of lazy screenwriting. Not even a polished music score by Bruno Coulais (Coraline) can keep this by-the-numbers misfire from devolving into movie night for undersexed cougars.
My Worst Nightmare starts giving arthouse viewers bad dreams en français this Friday at the Tower Theater (towertheatermiami.com). That same day Warm Bodies gives love – and zombie movies – a bad name in wide release.