Spoiler Level: Low
As far as Hollywood is concerned, we’re in the dog days of winter—which is to say that, during the first couple of months of the year, Hollywood studios dump their dogs unceremoniously off at the multiplexes and hope they never find their way home. If someone catches them doing it—“Hey, is this your dog of a movie?”—the studios are likely to slink away shamefully and deny ownership. If someone within their own organizations asks whatever happened to a certain movie, executives probably tell them that that particular movie went off to live on a farm where it can run around free and play with other doggies: it’s probably much happier there, so don’t worry about it, and don’t ask any questions.
So, this time of year, I tend to avoid the movie theaters with the same furtive determination that anyone involved with Movie 43 avoids talking about Movie 43. It’s the one time of year when I truly celebrate the glorious perks and freedoms of being unaffiliated: no one is paying me to do this, and therefore no one can order me to suck it up, stick a clothespin on my nose, and go review Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Last Stand, or Bullet to the Head. I’ve been occupying my downtime by over-analyzing old-ass silent movies, and—though it means hemorrhaging readers at roughly the same rate as the Deepwater Horizon spilled oil—I’ve been perfectly happy to do so.
However, after a few weeks of silent cinematic masterpieces, preceded by several months of austere Oscar-bait movies, one does get the urge to watch a deeply silly popcorn movie—preferably, if possible, a teen-age-romantic-comedy-action-adventure-with-zombies. Thankfully, there happens to be one out.
Warm Bodies, from writer-director Jonathan Levine (50/50), is among the dog-day-dumpees of February, but—while I can see why it wasn’t given a prime summer-blockbuster release—it’s really not that bad. As RomZomComs go, it’s no Shaun of the Dead—few things are—and it’s not even as good as Zombieland, but it’s a perfectly passable way to wile away 90-minutes of winter while you wait for the really good movies to return. It’s a half-empty/half-full glass of a movie: we can choose to see it as an slightly misfiring assemblage of missed opportunities, or we can appreciate as a harmless, mildly entertaining B-movie that is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. In this season of movie-going desperation, I’m choosing the latter view.
Nicholas Hoult (the boy from About a Boy, later the manipulative teen heartthrob on the British series Skins) plays “R,” who—apart from being a ravenous revenant—is just a nice, normal, sensitive teen-age guy. He doesn’t remember his actual name—he thinks it began with “R”—and he can barely form monosyllables, but he enjoys a rich interior life as he shambles slowly and aimlessly along the corridors of his airport home with the rest of his zombie community. Yes, R. eats the living—and carries extra pieces of their brains around in the pocket of his hoodie to snack upon later—but he also feels bad about killing, wonders about the existential meaning of his undead existence, and collects ’80s pop records on vinyl because the sound quality is so much better than CDs.
R’s world changes, however, when he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer), one of a group of human survivors who live in a heavily fortified fortress under the militaristic leadership of Julie’s father, Grigio (a somewhat phoned-in, paycheck-gathering performance from John Malkovich). In time-honored rom-com tradition, R. and Julie “meet cute”—she’s trying to kill his friends with a machine gun, and he’s just killed and eaten her boyfriend—but it is love at first sight for R., who switches gears immediately from trying to eat Julie to trying to protect and woo her. (If you haven’t figured out by now which Shakespearean story we’re in—and what the “R” probably stood for—the balcony scene a little later on should give you a hint.) Soon, R. and Julie are on the run together—with dangers coming from both Grigio’s soldiers and skeletal, hopelessly zombified creatures called “Boneys”—and forming a strange but strangely touching relationship.
To Levine’s credit, this necrophiliac love story does more or less work, and the best parts of the film play R’s undead state as a thin metaphor for the awkwardness and inarticulation of every guy who has fallen for a girl hopelessly out of his league. Levine takes the time to make us believe in, and care about, their bizarre courtship, and—though it’s all perfectly predictable—we find we’re surprisingly invested in the outcome. Both stars are very likable: to make the inevitable Twilight comparison, R. and Julie are like an Edward and Bella played by more attractive people who can actually emote. Levine has a deft, clever touch with small visual gags and well-chosen musical cues, and the film does manage to mine some humor along the way (aided considerably by a dead—and deadpan—Rob Corddry as R’s “best friend” M.)
Still, the film’s gentle charms won’t blind anyone to its considerable flaws. The movies that end up in the winter dumping ground tend to be those that are either overcooked (as with last year’s John Carter) or undercooked, and Warm Bodies feels like it could have used a couple more turns on the spit and a couple more drafts of the script. There are many amusing moments, but few laugh-out-loud funny ones; there are action sequences, but they are neither impressive nor suspenseful enough; there is a plot, but it degenerates too often into formulaic beats and preposterously cheesy contrivance. Part of the problem comes from what was probably an ill-conceived concept to begin with: to get funnier jokes out of this setup, or to generate more genuine suspense, R. and his undead cohorts would need to be more convincingly zombies—edgier, more dangerous, more disgusting—but then the central relationship would be less believable. In walking such a fine line between action-horror and romantic-comedy, Warm Bodies ends up not committing strongly enough to either side of the equation: the jokes are too gentle, the satire is too toothless, the romance is too safe, and the alleged thrills and scares are far too tame.
So yes, there’s a lot here that just feels like it never quite clicks. However—and maybe it’s just the low-expectations that come with the winter doldrums talking—there are also just enough good moments for me to say you could find worse ways to spend 90 minutes of a cold February evening. (When R. literally can’t form the words to reassure Julie he’ll keep her safe any other way, and so puts Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” on the record player, I found it almost impossible to really dislike Warm Bodies.) I can’t advise you to run right out to see it, but if you happen to find yourself in a theater with an hour-and-a-half to spare—or, years from now, come across it flipping channels on a couch—you may be pleasantly surprised.