Movie Review: "Warm Bodies"
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: February 1, 2013
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Stars: 4 out of 5
There will always be room in Hollywood for a sly reworking of "Romeo and Juliet." Sometimes it's necessary to rework the Montagues into flesh-eating zombies, but that's the price of living in the modern world. "Warm Bodies" is that rarest of creatures, a PG-13 zombie movie that's genuinely funny and works as a romantic comedy. Feel free to go back and read that last sentence again if needed. It's true, this movie takes a timeless tale of forbidden romance, splatters it with some-but not too much-zombie blood, and sends the whole package across the road with the proverbial chicken.
R (Nicholas Hoult) is a typical zombie teenager who enjoys the usual healthy zombie diversions. He likes to spend time eating the living with his friends, he often goes for long walks that end with eating the living, and sometimes he just wonders what it's all about-while eating the living. One day, while eating the living, he meets Julie (Teresa Palmer). R doesn't know quite what he feels when he looks at her, but somehow, it isn't his usual mindless drooling hunger. When the other zombies assault her, he swiftly-for a zombie-comes to her rescue. The two become friends with each other and outcasts among the others of their kind. Everyone's lives are about to be turned upside down, however, as the changes wrought by the blossoming relationship begin to echo through the rival camps of the living and those who eat them. But will the change come swiftly enough for the star-crossed pair?
Right off the bat, it has to be said that this movie never takes itself seriously. Almost every scene is written and delivered with an omnipresent tongue-in-cheek attitude without ever descending into high farce. The temptation in making a film like this is always to camp it up until the zombies become vegetarians and form a prog-rock band. Alternatively, the filmmakers could easily have lost track of the project and descended into maudlin pathos, with twenty minutes of screen time given over to a plucky human girl teaching the zombie to respect all life by taking care of a kitten. "Warm Bodies" is sufficiently aware of its place between the genres of horror and comedy to steer clear of both of these hazardous extremes.
Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer are the stars of "Warm Bodies," and as befits a reimagining of "Romeo and Juliet," they get by far the most screen time. Of the two, Teresa Palmer's Julie is less of a challenge for an actor. Palmer plays her straight as an arrow, showing the audience by turns a frightened horror-movie starlet, a romantic lead with a heart of gold, and a jaded comedienne who knows that what she's doing is not only totally ridiculous but is going to be popular with audiences everywhere.
Hoult faces more of a challenge as a performer. His character is more or less restricted to a limited range of facial expressions and gestures, which usually presents a challenge for an actor. Hoult soldiers on through his role, like Palmer, perfectly aware of the absurdity of the plot and doing his very best to uphold his end of the implicit contract an actor has with his audience. The role of R comes off fairly well despite the intrinsic limitations of the part. Also, John Malkovich is involved with this movie, so there's that.
One can hardly overstate the importance of a strong director for a project like "Warm Bodies." Jonathan Levine has some distinct advantages: he's known to be a demanding director who's very serious about getting the performance he wants out of his cast, but he also enjoys an intimate familiarity with the project. Levine is not only the director of this film, he's also fan enough of the original novel that he personally adapted the screenplay for it. Having such extensive experience with a film can drive a director quite mad, as seems to have happened more than once in Hollywood, or it can unlock hidden doors in the story and make for a director who knows his material inside and out.
"Warm Bodies" is a delightful balancing act between multiple opposing genres that manages to come off with the grace of a gymnast. It's smart when it can be, dumb when it should be, and funny just often enough to keep the audience in their seats while delivering enough shocking moments to keep them on their toes. Hanging alone, somewhere in the midst of mathematical space, lies the Platonic ideal of a date movie. Equal parts funny, scary, and romantic, "Warm Bodies" gets closer to that ideal than any other film has in years.