97 minutes | Audience rating: PG-13
The zombie romance “Warm Bodies” probably shouldn’t work.
In fact, for the first hour I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to work.
Well, that’s what I get for underestimating Jonathan Levine, maker of “The Wackness” and the sublime cancer comedy “50/50.”
“Warm Bodies,” you see, is a “Romeo & Juliet”-type romance about kids from two warring factions. Seriously, it even has a zombie-human balcony scene.
R (he can’t remember the rest of his name) is a hungry zombie wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Julie (short for Juliet, naturally) is a human survivor, one of several hundred who live behind a walled-off section of the city. Her dad is the guy in charge.
Can a warm-blooded teenage girl find love in the cold arms of the undead?
I’d have bet against it. But I was more or less sold by the end of “Warm Bodies.”
The film begins with R (Nicholas Hoult…he was the kid in “About A Boy”) wandering around a ravaged city. Yeah, he’s a zombie. He lurches. He has a vacant look on his face…except when he gets excited by the presence of someone with a heartbeat. He can’t recall what life was like before the zombie apocalypse.
Despite his slowly rotting exterior, R has an inner life — which is pretty much a first for the zombie genre. We know this because he tells us so in voiceover narration dripping with sarcasm. He eats people but in his defense, “At least I’m conflicted about it.”
“Warm Bodies” postulates that if a zombie eats your brain, he inherits some of your memories and emotions. (That’s another new one. But whatever…).
So when R chows down on the gray matter of Perry (Dave Franco), a human sent out to forage for food and supplies, he is suddenly filled with love for Perry’s girlfriend Julie (Teresa Palmer). In fact, R saves the terrified Julie from his fellow zombies and secrets her in his private lair, an abandoned jet airplane in which he has installed items (like an old record player) that meant something to him from his previous life.
After saving Julie’s bacon several times she decides he’s not such a bad sort. For a dead guy. At which point R’s heart starts beating, his body temperature goes up, old memories begin flowing, and he begins talking, first in one-word responses, then in full if halting sentences.
This change in R does not go unnoticed by his fellow zombies, particularly his buddy M (Rob Corddry). Can R and Julie’s love . bring together the living (Julie’s hard-to-convince Papa is played by John Malkovich) and “recovering” zombies to battle a common foe…the skeletal “bonies” (zombies who have rotted too far to be restared)?
Yeah, sounds iffy. But “Warm Bodies” works because in its latter stages Hoult and Palmer are so effective at establishing their characters’ unlikely romance. And because there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments.
And because Levine’s screenplay (based on Isaac Marion’s novel) so effectively exploits the connections with Shakespeare. Perry is Paris. R is Romeo. Julie’s goofy galpal Nora (Analeigh Tipton) wants to be a nurse. Corddry’s M is Mercutio.
“Warm Bodies” isn’t particularly special. Mostly it’s a diverting goof with a bit of heart. But this early in the movie year, we’ll take what we can get.
| Robert W. Butler