Republished at Gone Cinema Poaching
How much empathy should I have for Jesse Eisenberg at this point? Lanky, mop-topped and stammering his way into girl's pants, the actor has turned into the Michael Cera of the indie world, delivering variations on the same performance for the better part of the past decade. Introduced in 2002's Roger Dodger as the naive foil to Campbell Scott's motormouthed cad, Eisenberg creatively peaked with 2005's The Squid & the Whale which is still on the Mount Rushmore of myopic, self-involved behavior films.
But them returns be diminishing, calcifying with this spring's wet dream of mid-80's apathy and longing Adventureland and having finally spoiled with the similarly titled Zombieland opening this weekend. Now in his mid-20's, Eisenberg is once again coming of age, here chasing after that elusive girl who "gets" him while simultaneously pushing him away. In Adventureland he had to compete against a Lou Reed quoting Ryan Reynolds; I'm not sure whether the zombie apocalypse is considered an improvement.
Brightly lit, cheerfully violent and never afraid to run a joke into the ground, the brisk Zombieland gives us the neurotic and allegedly virginal Eisenberg as an unlikely survivor of an outbreak which has rendered the entire population of the country undead brain-eaters and littered our highways and byways with abandoned vehicles, downed airplanes and gutted corpses. But persevere Eisenberg has, surviving due to the anal retentive rules he's followed and his lack of human attachment. And we know this, because we're told this. Repeatedly.
A few weeks back Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! was tickling a certain segment of film fans who've long loathed the convention of voice over narration as an exposition device. Digressive, meandering and usually disruptive to the story it was ostensibly telling, the narration in The Informant! found Matt Damon's character expounding on any number of deep thoughts ranging from the hunting techniques of polar bears to tie patterns. It was as though it were thumbing its nose at the lazy habit of piping in a character's explanation of what they're feeling in relation to what's going on in the story or even what's happening on screen at that very moment, like the world's worst DVD commentary.
Which is exactly what Zombieland does, wallpapering over all the gaps in logic, story and character development inherent in writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's screenplay. Eisenberg's droning monotone, often vocalizing things we're seeing on screen in LARGE TEXT, is as omnipresent as all the 80's ironic rock chestnuts on the soundtrack. Watching Zombieland is like having someone sit behind you, reading aloud from the film's official novelization while you watch it.
But here I am talking about voice over and a drippy protagonist when there's zombie killing to discuss. Where is my head?
Picking up the hyper-agressive torch thrown down by Zach Snyder's widely liked (although not by me) Dawn of the Dead remake, Zombieland depicts a world where killing zombies stems less from a need to survive and more out of boredom. A place where our band of heroes--which also includes Woody Harrelson as an ammunition-loving redneck in the ass kicking business (and as the film proudly proclaims, "business is good") Superbad's Emma Stone as our smokey-voiced love interest and Abigail Breslin wearing out that precocious stage of her career--often lobby for coveted "Zombie Kill of the Week" a stat that's still apparently documented and spread throughout the land despite the fact that all other forms of civilization have ceased. No kill is too grotesque or too creative, no witty bon mot delivered after the fact too glib. The entire cast seems to be preening for our amusement, investing little into their own story as better to make wisecracks while mowing down waves of the undead.
Zombieland has drawn comparisons to the other comedic zombie film of the past decade, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, but the gives the former far too much credit and makes the latter seem criminally slight. Missing here is Shaun's restlessness and waves of empathy that gave dignity to its characters even as they battled zombies by flinging Prince records at them. There's no one likable here; real emotions are footnotes and punctuation to stoner gags and already dated pop culture references (at one point Eisenberg's character says the best thing about the end of the world is no more Facebook updates, making his casting in the upcoming David Fincher film, The Social Network, either inspired or terrible timing).
Everyone here is doing shtick and first time director Ruben Fleischer encourages his cast to play it to the rafters as though that's the only way they'll stand out amongst his more garish filmmaking flourishes (ie: lots of sloooooow mo). Even when the film does stumble into gold, it has no idea what to do with it. At one point our survivors hole up in the "abandoned" home of a Hollywood celebrity only to find that the place isn't quite as empty as they'd thought (ruining this surprise cameo has turned into a sport on the net, but I'll obviously refrain). Yet the film can't be bothered to actually find something interesting to do with the scenario, making lame art deco jokes and mostly standing around as star-struck as its characters.
One doesn't go into these films looking for logic but the absence of consequence in the face of near-certain death is especially grating. This is how we end up with a detour to an abandoned amusement park where the characters are shocked (SHOCKED) that the noise and lights of the park might draw unwanted attention. If our characters can't even be bothered to care about their survival, then why the hell should we?
But what do you expect from a film that makes the threat of being torn limb from limb secondary to whether or not our hero is able to overcome his anxiety and convince the only of-age female in the Western Hemisphere to make out with him? It's been pointed out to me that while I've seen this routine from Eisenberg several times now, Zombieland represents his most public of offerings. This means after Zombieland he has potentially millions of new people who can be irritated three films hence. See you when you get there.