The trouble is that it never really finds its own unique comic voice, but it also can't quite match up to the films it draws from and pays homage to. It quotes liberally (and sometimes ingeniously) from Ghostbusters and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, as well as the films of Edgar Wright (director Ruben Fleischer is clearly a Wright fan, and this--his studio debut--mixes the cheeky horror humor Shaun of the Dead with the hyperkinetic stylization of Hot Fuzz). The problem is, a film so open with its influences sets the bar pretty high for itself. Zombieland can't quite clear that bar, but it has a helluva lot of fun trying.
The picture takes place in a not-too-distant future where a virus has turned the bulk of humanity into fast-moving, flesh-eating zombies of the 28 Days Later variety. Jesse Eisenberg stars and narrates as Columbus (no one is referred to by their proper name, but by their eventual destination), the unlikely hero who has managed to survive by living by a set of stringent rules ("Always check the back seat," "Don't be a hero," etc). The idea of the meek, nebbish anti-hero dropped into a man of action situation is a good one, and Eisenberg is a nice fit for the role. While roaming the land, he joins up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a shotgun-wielding badass; they end up losing their ammo and transportation to Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of young con artists, but the quartet eventually joins up in the interest of mutual survival.
The opening scenes, in which we meet Columbus and Tallahassee, learn Columbus' rules, and take in the world gone mad, have a lunatic genius to them; Fleisher's direction (and the script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is cranked up to 11, filling the screen with gallons of fake blood, zippy camerawork, and clever on-screen text. You're not sure if they can sustain that energy, and turns out, they can't--though I'm not sure that they'd want to (pounding away in the same style and at the same pace is part of what makes Michael Bay's movies so insufferable). But there's no question that it hits a bit of a lull; the dynamic of the two female characters isn't as well-developed as that of the men, though there are still some funny bits here and there.
Things perk up with the crew lands in Hollywood and pays a visit to the seemingly abandoned mansion of Tallahassee's favorite movie star (I wouldn't dream of revealing who it is, though the beans have been spilled in some early reviews and on the movie's imdb page). Before you know it, they've already arrived at the climax (the picture is not a moment too long at 82 minutes), a crowd-pleasing zombie battle at an amusement park, full of smart action and good gags (bonus points for the Black Keys cue).
Eisenberg is carving out a nice niche as a comic lead--he's often compared to Michael Cera, and indeed they play some similar roles, but Eisenberg brings a different kind of comic timing to his work (to a degree that Drew McWeeny's comparison to a young Woody Allen is fairly accurate). Harrelson is brash and badass, but with a grin; it's the most entertaining work he's done in years. Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) has some nice moments, and Stone (most memorable as the object of Jonah Hill's desire in Superbad) is tough and sexy as hell--her relationship with Eisenberg is sweet and charming.
Zombieland sputters on occasion, and threatens to run out of gas in that middle stretch. But when it works, it really works--it's a knowing, witty, winky movie, cheerfully bloody, subversively smart, and slyly droll. It's a rare movie that gives you what you paid for--and, in places, might even give you a little more.
"Zombieland" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, February 2nd.