Wednesday, February 10, 2016

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES Never Fully Delivers On the Fun of Its Premise


- The first twenty minutes or so of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES are pretty much exactly what you'd want out of a movie with this title. You get a quick but effective intro to a world where a zombie plague has forced otherwise stiff-upper-lipped Londeners to become zombie-slaying badasses. It's a world where women carry concealed daggers beneath their laced-up dresses, where one's worth is determined by the usual things - class, wealth, and upbringing - but also by one's ability to brutally dispose of a horde of attacking zombies. The tone of the film's first act is spot-on: pulpy, silly, over-the-top. It promises a winking, grindhouse-y take on a literary classic. For the movie's first twenty minutes, the people in my theater were cheering and clapping consistently. This was going to be fun ... until it wasn't. For some reason, the movie quickly abandons its more over-the-top instincts, eventually settling into a much more grounded rhythm. It becomes much more Pride and Prejudice, much less so zombies. The movie opens with a great glimpse at the potential for subversive fun in this world - but it never really delivers on any of that promise, beyond a couple of initial moments. What happened? I mean, the premise lends itself to a movie that pulls no punches and goes for broke. Instead, we get a movie that is basically just the Jane Austen novel with a couple of zombies thrown in for good measure. Lame.

I suppose that what is commendable and interesting about this movie is that it ultimately keeps things pretty classy. If you were to take away the zombies altogether, you'd have the makings of a pretty solid, straightforward adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The cast has real acting bonafides, and they ultimately do the Austen part of the movie justice - in fact, they mostly play things pretty straight. Again, it's really strange, because the film's opening moments seem to promise a bloody good time that never materializes. The only person who seems to be doing something other than straight-up Austen is former Doctor, Matt Smith. Smith hams it up as Parson Collins - a whimpering suitor who is an effective source of comic relief in the movie's dour second half.

That said, Lily James is a great lead as Elizabeth Bennet. She's got the period-drama bonafides to pull off Pride and Prejudice, and also the needed badassery to be believable as a dangerously determined slayer of zombies. Sam Riley is also good as Mr. Darcy, though his old-English twist on the Christian Bale Batman voice grows a little wearisome after a while. Still, he does brooding well - and I thought the way that the film made the prideful aristocrat also be a highly-regarded zombie-destroyer was clever. It adds even more fuel to his rocky romance with Elizabeth. The movie's also got appearances from lots of genre favorites. Charles Dance and Lena Heady from Game of Thrones both show up (though feel underutilized). Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston plays Wickham - the seemingly noble (but maybe not-so-noble!) suitor-turned-antagonist.

Lena Heady's character is a great example of where the movie comes up short. As we all know, Heady is one of the great badass actors working today. Sarah Connor. Queen Gorgo. Circe Lannister. Here she plays Lady Catherine de Bourgh - an eye-patched hero of the zombie wars who other characters speak of in hushed tones. When she first appears in the film, we don't actually see Heady as Catherine, not at first. Instead, we see Catherine immortalized in a lavish painting that depicts her taking on a horde of zombies in battle, mowing them down with her gleaming sword in epic fashion. The painting is so entertainingly crazy that its reveal is in and of itself a big applause moment. Surely, this is a teaser for some insane action sequence to come - where we'll get to actually witness Lady Catherine in her full, zombie-destroying glory. But does that scene ever come? Do we ever get to witness the sure-to-be-jaw-dropping spectacle of Heady making Rick Grimes look like Rick Santorum? No. We do not. And this sort of sums up PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES in a nutshell ... lots of filler, not even close to enough killer.

Because, look - I haven't read the book version of this. But, maybe in book form, there's a certain novelty to, you know, just having this cool-looking book that is at first glance just Pride and Prejudice, but on second glance - oh man, it's got zombies! But Pride and Prejudice and Occasional Zombies does not make for a compelling movie-going experience. We keep wanting for the movie to go all-in, and it doesn't quite deliver.

But it gets by for a while on sheer potential, and the goodwill generated from its uber-entertaining opening. The cast is fun, the premise is cool, and the movie comes out of the gate swingin' - all that's missing is the follow-through. It's actually a bit baffling. The movie ends up limping towards its finale. A post-credits scene tries to make good on the lack of fun in the third act, but it feels like way too little, too late.

Sidenote: there was a great comic book series from a few years back called The New Deadwardians, with a similar concept, that was really excellent. Track it down!

My Grade: C

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