Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard
Running Time: 81 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Filmmakers never really know for sure how well they've cast a movie until it's up there on the screen. They have a script and maybe even certain actors in mind for specific parts but once the camera starts rolling there's no telling what will happen. The apocalyptic comedy Zombieland is an example of the best possible scenario, where special chemistry exists between the actors that couldn't occur if even just one of those performers were replaced. On paper, it appears to be a solid line-up of four talents, but nothing that would have you thinking they've assembled a "dream team." But it is. This wouldn't work as well as it does without their complete commitment to making these characters ones we enjoy getting to know and hang with.
Tempting as it is to give them all the credit for how fun this is, doing that would overlook how adept director Ruben Fleischer's debut feature is at re-energizing a familiar concept with fresh, innovative ideas. Working from a smartly conceived script from Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese he takes one type of movie that's been beaten into the ground (the zombie film) and adds another that's been equally played out (the post-apocalyptic adventure), but only by adding the third (the road trip comedy) do the special qualities in all of them start to really shine through. It's a toss-up determining whether this comedy is more fun for viewers or the actors starring in it, including one celebrity who has the cameo of the year, if not the decade. Given how smart the entire film is it's no surprise that this usually reclusive actor would agree to appear in it and boy does he ever make the most of the ten minutes he's on screen, turning an already wild time into one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences all year.
The movie opens in a post-apocalyptic zombie-plagued America with nerdy college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) on his way home to Columbus, Ohio to find out if his parents are still alive. As a loner with many phobias and no friends who spent his Friday nights guzzling "Code Red" Mountain Dew and playing World of Warcraft, Columbus has always played it safe. It's that approach and a list of rules he's come up with that helps him survive the zombie attacks that have claimed everyone else. After losing his car along the way he hitches a ride with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an unhinged lunatic hell bent on finding Twinkies and willing to kill any zombie in sight to get them. Then the odd pairing really meet their toughest competition in con-artists Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of sisters determined to make it to the supposedly zombie-free "Pacific Playland" amusement park in Los Angeles.
The movie is so smart in how it creates this desolate, zombie-ridden world right from the awesome opening Metallica title sequence and Columbus' rules for surviving the wasteland known as "Zombieland, U.S.A." What's so impressive about these rules is that they're not only funny, but they actually make sense (i.e. RULE #1-CARDIO) and propel the story forward in a meaningful way. When adherence to a rule by any character occurs during the course of the film title cards pop up in inventive ways in the background letting us know. The use of voice-over narration and flashbacks in a zombie comedy is practically unheard of but it's incorporated perfectly as both effectively convey the bumbling, neurotic Columbus' insecurities and give us a valuable background information on the zombie plague. One flashback featuring a brief, but extremely memorable Amber Heard appearance just might be the most exciting sequence in the film. But even that pales in comparison to the big celebrity cameo that isn't exactly a well kept secret.
Even though many other reviews have given it away and it's practically public knowledge at this point I won't spoil this legendary actor's identity on the off chance of pissing anyone off who wants to completely remain in the dark. But I will say that the more I think about this actor's appearance the more I realize what a genius choice it was to have him appear and how no one else would have had the same effect. He certainly isn't the biggest name and from what I heard wasn't even the first choice to do this, but because he's a celebrity that we imagine would be the most fun to meet, we can share in the characters' excitement of seeing him for ten minutes in the type of comedic part we wish he'd take again. And what's so surprising is that this part ends up being that of himself...or at least how audiences have long perceived him to be like in real life. The cameo is brilliant in its self-awareness and the final line he gets off put me in a state of pain from laughter. We're even treated to him spoofing one of his most famous roles in a film I was unsure I wanted to see a sequel of. After this, now I'm sure. I want a sequel to it. Some directors waste big name, talented actors for over two hours but here Fleischer has this one for only ten minutes and milks every last second of those for maximum entertainment value.
He may not be the lead, but it's Harrelson who's the star, being given the opportunity to cut loose and go completely bad-ass in ways hasn't been able to do since the days of Natural Born Killers and Kingpin. The role fits him like a glove and only a good actor could have played it because as the story wears on he's called upon to give the character of Tallahassee real purpose beyond just finding his favorite snack cakes, which isn't easy when you also have to go over-the-top as a crazy man also. When I say none of these actors could be replaced in their roles I'm specifically referring to the inevitable, but groundless accusation that Jesse Eisenberg is always playing a poor man's Michael Cera. It's a silly theory that somehow gained traction based on nothing. I'll admit I had my doubts about Eisenberg at first but now it's getting to the point where the string of quality films are too numerous to just write it off as him lucking out and stumbling onto good scripts. While it's true he's played the same "type" of character in a lot of these outings (and isn't asked to stretch much more than that again here) there's an underlying dramatic sincerity to all of his performances that make his characters relatable and realistic. This movie feels as much like a coming-of-age movie as a zombie comedy or a wild road trip and makes an interesting companion piece to his other amusement park movie, the under-appreciated Adventureland. Just the sight of how uncomfortably nervous he looks killing zombies is worth the price of admission.
Those only familiar with smokey-eyed Emma Stone as the hottie in Superbad will be surprised to discover she makes Wichita a lot more than that and proves to be a really talented comedic actress with great sarcastic timing. As Little Rock, Abigail Breslin makes a seamless transition from child star into pre-teen actress, delivering some of the movie's best punch-lines. The interplay between all the actors feels so natural it's a shock this is the first time they've teamed up and I'd be very surprised if these four performers don't really enjoy what they're doing. It just comes across in every scene. As the film neared its conclusion, just the possibility you won't get to see them together anymore is kind of dejecting. The ending showdown at Pacific Playland is exciting and unpredictable because there really is some doubt as to whether everyone will survive. Besides providing non-stop laughs, the movie succeeds in the effects department as well and never uses the fact it's a comedy to wimp out in delivering just the right amount of violence and gore. It earns its "R" rating.
This is the highest grossing zombie movie of all-time and deserves to be. Supposedly, there's already a sequel in the works that's set to be filmed in 3-D. While I'm not thrilled with that idea (is every movie going 3-D now?) I can at least understand the logic behind using that format in this instance and would probably be willing to see ten sequels with these actors onscreen again together. They're that good. There are many more places they can take take the story and characters in Zombieland and I'm looking forward to the ride. Consider it illegal to have this much fun watching a comedy.