Zombieland achieves that which is perhaps most difficult in cinema: a successful blending of comedy, action, gore and brains that stays perpetually upbeat and doesn't become a victim of its own absurdity. This is perhaps first and foremost thanks to its atypical cast of characters, and the actors chosen to portray them. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is our leading man and narrator, a scrawny college kid whose life prior to the spread of a zombie plague had consisted mostly of video games and isolation. He lives his life according to a series of rules for survival, traveling light with a single suitcase and a gun at his side. Along the way he teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) a rough and tumble zombie killing enthusiast hoping for little more than the last Twinkie on Earth (believe it or not, they have an expiration date). Add to it a pair of smart-mouthed sister grifters Wichita and Little Rock (Emma Stone & Abigail Breslin) and you've got a movie that could have easily been a formulaic teeny-bopper story. One adult, two semi-adults, and a kid on the run from monsters. Yet, even if it didn't have gratuitous amounts of blood, Zombieland would still manage to evade the traps set up for it. The characters are survivors, not because they're unbelievably stoic or off-the-wall caricatures, but because they're clever people with realistic dilemmas. Sure there are some obvious visual gags and familiar tropes, but these aren't 2-dimensional action heroes who get off on one liners and crude puns. These are small heroes seeking a way to get by, throughout the trials and tribulations of a zombie infestation, incalculable loss, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Director Ruben Fleischer executes his first major film with exuberance and ease. There's nary a moment in its 81-minute run where Zombieland feels forced, labored, or at all dull. In fact, it's safe to say that it's as charming as it is awesome. It's a mad cap fun house, a roller coaster, the whole damn amusement park. Simply put: it's fun, not in a way that felt like empty entertainment, but in a way that's almost comforting. There's something about this particular brand of schlocky horror merged with the pleasant natures of the characters that makes me smile just thinking about it. Maybe it's a certain brand of nostalgia, maybe it's the cheery suspension of disbelief, maybe it's the brilliantly positioned Bill Murray cameo, but there's something about Zombieland and its unlikely heroes that I can unabashedly own up not to liking, but to loving.
Is it a guilty pleasure? Possibly. Though I think it's legitimately better than that. This is artfully crafted, truly solid entertainment that's paced perfectly. The zombies appear when necessarily, external plot devices are brought in for humorous effect, the opening credits are a slow-motion blood ballet, and Jesse Eisenberg's neurotic presence brings a much needed wit and wisdom to the genre. Frankly, while the weapons may appear too readily available, there's a few quick coincidences, and Stone & Breslin's characters could use just a tad more screen time, the faults of the film are minimal. It may not be a great work of art, but it's sure as hell worth dropping cash on at the theater.
See all of Wilde.Dash's reviews at Love & Squalor.