Zombieland

On DVD and streaming on Netflix.

Clearly, I’ve played way too much Fallout 3 in my time because I could barely watch Zombieland without shrieking at the characters, who didn’t seem to have my hard-won expertise at surviving under post-apocalyptic conditions. “Shouldn’t you be foraging through that abandoned grocery store?” I’d cry. “Don’t just trash the place.” I’d shake my head in frustration when they wasted ammunition with celebratory shots in the air, and I never could handle the way they’d saunter blithely into an unfamiliar building instead of methodically scoping it out and clearing it. “These people deserve to die,” I’d grumble.

I’m not usually this insistent on practicality in suspense movies. (I rather liked Red Eye, for example, only recognizing after the fact how many flat-out idiotic mistakes Rachel McAdams makes in attempting to escape psycho Cillian Murphy.) But Zombieland pulls a bait-and-switch. The opening narration is all about our protagonist’s rules for surviving among the undead, and I was excited about this cinematic Zombie Survival Guide. Tips! But then it turns out that the movie isn’t so much about how to defeat zombies as it is about the value of community and how No Man Is an Island, et cetera, et cetera, and weirdly, this annoyed me no end. What’s more, the serious themes don’t gibe with the flip tone, making for a scattershot film, reveling in gross-out slapstick one minute and trying to do something semi-heartfelt the next. I couldn’t keep up with the record-skip mood shifts.

That said, Zombieland isn’t a bad movie. Many scenes have a certain shaggy charm about them, and if nothing else, the cast is great. Jesse Eisenberg stars as “Columbus,” an anxious, nerdy loner who stumbles across the much tougher “Tallahassee” (Woody Harrelson), a rare fellow survivor in a wasteland where nearly everyone has been zombified by a virus transmitted through bites. It would be a stretch to say the two partner up—they don’t even exchange names, instead each calling the other by his ostensible destination—but they’re sharing a car when they meet “Wichita” and “Little Rock” (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin), shrewd sisters who play a friendly but ruthless game as they grift their way west. Columbus crushes on Wichita immediately—he doesn’t take it personally when she pulls a gun on him—and for a while, the foursome become a makeshift family, bonded by circumstance and a need for human connection.

The movie’s centerpiece is a visit to a remarkably well-preserved Hollywood mansion, where the fifth and final non-zombie character shows up in a memorable cameo from a comedy icon. The performance in question is great—terrifically deadpan—but the sequence also encapsulates my frustrations with Zombieland. It’s extremely self-indulgent, riffing in an arch, detached manner as the filmmakers revel in their casting coup (you can practically hear them jumping up and down off-screen), and then it abruptly tries to wring pathos out of a stupid, shocking-for-the-sake-of-shocking yet painfully predictable plot turn. And that, frankly, was where the movie lost me for good.

Zombieland wants us to feel something for Columbus and his ragtag band of almost-but-not-quite friends, but its split personality makes that impossible for me. It’s a slick, well-made movie, aesthetically, but emotionally, the pieces don’t fit together.