Friday, February 1, 2013

Undying Love: WARM BODIES

When R (Nicholas Hoult) meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), he doesn’t know what to say. He’s understandably tongue-tied, and not just because she’s a smart, capable, pretty blonde in tight jeans. He’s dead. Well, he’s not dead, exactly. He’s undead. Warm Bodies, written and directed by Jonathan Levine from the novel by Isaac Marion, takes place some years after the dawn of a zombie apocalypse and R is just one of many reanimated corpses shambling about the ruins of civilization. He’s an unusual zombie since his brain seems to be rattling about with a fair amount of activity. There’s enough going on in there, at least, to provide us with a chatty narration that his rigor mortis won’t allow him to vocalize properly. We’re in his head and can tell he’s instantly in love with Julie even though she and her friends are being attacked by his kind, judging by the way the scene drops into slow motion and an 80’s pop ballad fills the soundtrack as she fires her rifle, hair blowing, cheeks rosy.

Warm Bodies would be more of a satire of the kind of paranormal romances that have flourished in these post-Twilight days if it didn’t work pretty well as a rather surprisingly charming romance itself. R protects Julie from having her brain turned into a snack, sheltering her in a crashed airplane where he keeps his record collection. (The movie has a nice soundtrack to go with those stacks of vinyl.)  She’s understandably scared at first. Her dad (John Malkovich) is the leader of their walled-off, heavily armed city of survivors. She’s been trained to shoot to kill the undead without hesitation. She’s weaponless behind zombie territory when R saves her. And he’s kind, clearly making an effort, straining to be understood through his hunched body language and groaning monosyllabic vocabulary. She decides he’s not so bad for a dead guy.

Though the resolutely PG-13 film has a fair amount of guts and gore kept just out of frame, this is a zombie movie for people who don’t like zombie movies. It’s a sweet and hopeful post apocalypse with appealing lead performances. Hoult makes for a likable monster in that he never comes across like one. Sure, he munches on brains, but our access to his inner monologue makes him seem appropriately conflicted about it. And as his relationship with Palmer grows hesitantly warmer, so too does his yearning to be free of the curse of being a zombie. This sets into motion a strangely off-handed search-for-a-cure plot that helps to move the film towards its conclusion. Along the way we meet other zombies who are starting to spark back to life, including a funny Rob Corddry, playing a likable zombie in what amounts to his most restrained performance ever, grunting out barely half a word at a time, but nonetheless getting some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Since we’re expected to like these zombies, there are also roaming packs of plague-ridden antagonists in the form of rotted out skeletons, undead too far gone, who are irredeemable and therefore suitable cannon fodder. It works to tie up the plot and force a conclusion through fairly standard action beats that are the least inspired aspect of this altogether pleasant amusement. What works best is the genuinely heartfelt chemistry at the core. Despite bordering on sappy with its insistence that true love can break through even cold, dead zombie hearts, Hoult and Palmer give appealing performances that are heartwarming enough to buy it. Levine, whose last feature was 50/50, a largely, and improbably, enjoyable comedy about a young man with cancer, knows how to find comedy out of tough scenarios and directs here with a light touch that never pushes too hard against material so pleasingly slight and likably diverting.

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