A geeky-looking boy is mired in existential despair. He worries about his pale skin, his poor diet, his bad posture. He wants to meet people. He wants to connect. He wants to stop feeling so alone. "What am I doing with my life?" he moans to himself. Then he moans again, and again, and again. The boy is a zombie -- a brain-eating, foot-shuffling, hopeless romantic -- and as we quickly realize, his story isn't as common as it seems.
Warm Bodies: Nicholas Hoult (left)
(Photo by Jonathan Wenk)
Warm Bodies opens with this sardonic introduction of "R" (Nicholas Hoult), a sentient zombie who only remembers the first letter of his name, as he stumbles around an airport slack-jawed and dead-eyed. His inner monologue is racing -- we can tell, delightfully enough, because it's sprinkled throughout the film as a voice-over -- but his rotting face doesn't hint at the charming wit that's still lurking within his mind. It's not all bad, though. He has a best friend (Rob Corddry), proving once and for all to meatheads around the world that friendship can be built on grunts. He lives in his very own airplane, with a decent collection of vinyl records to sooth his undead ears. ("Better … sound," he groans at one point, with more feeling than most record-store employees. "More … alive.") He even takes day trips into the city, where if he can catch 'em and kill 'em, he can feast on the zombie's delicacy of delicacies -- brains. During one buffet hunt, however, R stumbles on Julie (Teresa Palmer) and a small group of warm-blooded folk scavenging for medicine. The rest of their story is a tale as old as time: zombie falls for girl, zombie eats girl's boyfriend, zombie kidnaps girl to win her heart with the sweet, sweet sounds of Guns N' Roses.
Okay, yes, this is far from groundbreaking cinema. On the other hand, contemporary zombie flicks and romantic comedies aren't known for being particularly perceptive. These sorts of films don't inspire deep thought, nor are they typically meant to. Instead, they tickle the most sensitive parts of humanity: our desire for love and our fear of death. Writer-director Jonathan Levine stirs the former with a splendid flair, and brushes against the latter ever so gently. (It wouldn't be a zombie-romantic-comedy with too grim a pallor, after all.) The result is a rare, delightful sort of commercially minded film. Warm Bodies lacks quality, but it's charmingly self-aware.
There's no particular genius to the film's formula, and yet it works. Quite simply, Warm Bodies is a clever mash-up with a keen eye for sentimental humor. Once Hoult and Palmer build a rapport, the film shines with the sort of comedic glee that few others can manage -- and they're often upstaged by Corddry, whose dry delivery is practically desiccated, and Analeigh Tipton, who delights as Julie's best friend. Levine doesn't hesitate to mix all of his ingredients together, either; he buttresses a wicked send-up of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet with tropes recognizable to anyone who's seen a teen rom-com. It isn't a perfect fit, but the film's unique blend of the absurd and the familiar makes the sequence bizarrely enjoyable to watch. Twilight for zombies, this is not.
Warm Bodies is flawed, to be sure. Even at a paltry 97 minutes, it feels too long. John Malkovich nearly snores through his uninspired performance as Julie's father, the military leader of a city fortress. And, dishearteningly, the romance that develops between R and Julie is questionable to say the very least; she rarely addresses her ex-boyfriend's death in any meaningful way. Even in a zombie movie, that's unbelievable. There are elements of a great movie buried in Warm Bodies, but wherever they may be hiding, they rarely peek out from the warm embrace of their merely satisfactory surroundings.
What are the emotional consequences of a zombie who develops feelings? As his humanity re-emerges, does he regret chomping on gray matter? Can he be redeemed for his evil deeds? Should he be punished for what he did? Levine asks none of these questions -- he's too constrained by the limitations of genre to even consider them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Warm Bodies is still an adorable, entertaining film. It isn't lovely, but it's awfully tender. I'll take that over a bloodless bore any day.