By Noah Cohen, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 5, 2013
“Warm Bodies” fosters the vision that not everything is as ruined as it seems, and that by keeping faith, you can un-ruin what a more sensible person would’ve given up for lost. This movie takes the hollowed-out, cynical shell of the American teenager and exhumes us, digs up some dead hope and suggests that the faith it takes to dig something up — even just to really look at it — has the power to resurrect it.
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An analogue of “Romeo and Juliet,” where the zombies play the Montagues, it would be easy to say that this movie is a dorky parody of a love story, but it isn’t; it’s a love story in its own right, and where Romeo and Juliet walked hand-in-hand toward death, R (Nicholas Hoult, “Skins”) and Julie (Teresa Palmer, “Bedtime Stories”) walk hand-in-hand in the opposite direction, which makes “Warm Bodies” an unprecedented take on the classic tragedy by being the diametric opposite: a comedy. Only in a context such as this, where a lover literally begins the tale from the point of death, could there be such a perfectly symmetrical inversion of Shakespeare’s horror story. Opportunity noticed, opportunity seized.
Though definitely a comedy in the classical sense of the word, whether this movie takes itself seriously is constantly in question, which, of course, makes it lethally funny. Every zombie grunt and comically wide-eyed expression contains elements of “Titanic” gravity and Marx Brothers hilarity. But in the same way “Arrested Development,” when described to someone who’s never seen it, doesn’t seem funny or special, “Warm Bodies” favors a humor impossible to essentialize. Maybe it’s the genius of Nicholas Hoult that does the trick.
The young man who plays the zombie named “R,” Hoult, is staggeringly brilliant. Ordinarily, one might criticize this sort of movie for making the good zombies prettier than the bad zombies, but no one can accuse Hoult of being cast on looks alone (he has been accused of this in the past, but only because the man is just dead sexy). His comedic timing, his endearing hesitancy and the compromises he makes between playing a zombie and playing a boy in love, showcase his natural ease with weird expectations. His choices, and the direction he’s given in this movie, are dead on.
What really killed it, though, was Hoult’s deadpan narration. It was mild and unforced enough that the scriptwriting, which could have been emphasized past its humor and sunk the whole film, was instead laid out tepidly and without pretense. This affably unhappy zombie, R, outlines his worries and feelings as though a casual conversation with the audience wasn’t even the slightest danger to the fourth wall, and it isn’t, because Hoult doesn’t worry that it will be. Hoult’s experience with overdub in the British TV show “Skins” made him the perfect casting for this part. From Rob Corddry (“The Daily Show”) as R’s best zombie-friend, M, to the unaccountably likable Analeigh Tipton (“Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) playing Julie’s best friend, Nora, the whole film is cast to the nines.
“Warm Bodies” understands why a zombie romance is unlikely, and this self-awareness lends it the narrative room to admit wholeheartedly to the faults of zombie culture, and this becomes a comment on our own culture. In the beginning of the movie, R describes death as a weakened obligation towards common decency and the imperative to connect with one another, that being a zombie means ceasing to reach out to other people. R consoles himself by collecting things, and this is a metaphor for how he has resisted death.
The idea of storing our humanity in small things — memories of our childhoods, preference of vinyl over MP3, the tendency to apologize when we bump into someone — runs throughout the screenplay of “Warm Bodies,” and reminds us, with unexpected warmth, that we are not trapped, not dying, not unsalvageable; that to be lost and suffering is different than to be defeated.