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Jonathan Levine has managed to build an interesting filmography without repeating himself so far, and by hopping from genre to genre, he's proven himself to be a very limber filmmaker whose greatest strength is building spaces for actors to do strong work. "Warm Bodies," based on a young adult novel and no doubt greenlt by Summit to help them in a post-"Twilight" world, is a sincere and savvy take on both "Romeo and Juliet" and the zombie genre, and if there's any justice, this should be a strong spring performer as word of mouth spreads.
Isaac Marion's novel posed a challenge to anyone adapting it because so much of what happens in the book is internal, narrated by the inner monologue of a zombie named R. Levine, who wrote the script as well as directed, went all-in on the narration idea, and much of the film is married to an ongoing narration by Nicholas Hoult. It's been fascinating watching Hoult come into focus as a performer. His work in "About A Boy" was so good that I remember walking out of the movie worried about his future. He was such a painfully awkward kid, and yet a few years later, watching him on "Skins," he seemed to have transformed completely into a fascinating dead-eyed shark. He grew into himself and seemed to be particularly good at playing the great-looking shit, the kid who took full advantage of the genetic lottery he won. Either one of those roles could have been enough to trap him into playing variations on the same character over and over, but seeing one kid play both parts suggested a real depth to what Hoult was capable of, and he continues to prove that with each new performance he gives.
Watching Hollywood try to figure out what to do with him has been occasionally painful, and like many actors, he's done his time in the big plastic blockbuster trenches It worked out well in the case of "X-Men: First Class" but went poorly with "Clash Of The Titans." Later this year, he plays the titular character in "Jack The Giant Killer," his first action movie lead, so it's good to see him in something smaller and character driven. His is not an easy role to play, especially because when he film begins, he is still actively chasing and eating living people. Talk about starting from a deficit in terms of audience sympathy. Hoult does a nice job of playing the gradual awakening of R., finding nice beats of humor without totally rendering the character a non-threat, and the small details of his physical performance are nicely-observed.
And, yes, I said awakening, because this movie creates its own rules for the zombies, much the way "Twilight" took major liberties with basic vampire mythology. The entire film hinges on an impulsive move made by R. during an encounter with some living people. While the zombies are busy feeding on everyone, R. sees Julie (Teresa Palmer), and something in him stirs. Instead of attacking her, he smears her with some goo that makes it hard for the other zombies to smell her, and he leads her back to his makeshift home in an abandoned 747. In the grand romantic tradition of everything from "Tarzan The Ape Man" to "WALL-E," R. introduces Julie to his world, to the things he considers important, his collection of artifacts from a world that is long-dead now. Slowly, Julie comes to realize that R.'s signs of intelligence are not a one-off accident, but that they are instead an indication that things are changing. The problem is that her father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), has only one mode of dealing with zombies, and that is shooting them in the head.
One of the most interesting ideas in the film has to do with the reasoning behind zombies eating brains. Here, we see that the eating of a brain is almost like a drug for zombies, flooding them with a rush of emotion and memory from their victim. Since one of the people that R. eats is Perry (Dave Franco), Julie's boyfriend, those feelings and those memories are transferred to him, and it only accelerates his feelings for Julie. Teresa Palmer is one of those actors who I feel like we have yet to see really show off what she can do. She has to somehow make Julie's evolving feelings for R. seem possible and not ridiculous, and Palmer does it without ever making it feel forced. So much of the movie comes down to whether or not you buy the chemistry between Hoult and Palmer, and Levine's casting pays off beautifully.
Analeigh Tipton does good work as Julie's best friend, and Rob Corddry plays completely against type in his role as M., R's best zombie buddy. The film is at its best when its just kind of ambling along, telling the story of the strange relationship that buds between R. and Julie, and when things suddenly become very plot-driven in the last third of the film, some of the air goes out of things. There are bad-guy zombies, so decomposed that they're essentially just skeletons, and the Boneys serve their purpose without ever really becoming interesting. It's a minor complaint, but it does undermine the overall impact of the picture.
Javier Aguirresarobe is a great cinematographer, and he cut his teeth on films like "The Others," "Talk To Her," and "The Sea Inside" before Hollywood started pressing him into service. These days, he classes up movies like the "Twilight" sequels and "Fright Night," and he does a great job shooting not only the day-to-day decay of the world, but also the burnished beauty of the brain-absorbed memories. Martin Whist's production design is effective on what appears to be a limited budget, and the score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders lends just the right support to the proceedings, with some expertly chosen pop songs to help punctuate things.
Overall, "Warm Bodies" may be the best film adapted from this current batch of young adult material that Hollywood is desperate to get right, and it should do wonders for both of its young stars. I don't believe I've ever used the word "charming" to describe a zombie film before, but this one deserves it, and I suspect this is a film that will be warmly remembered in years to come.
"Warm Bodies" opens everywhere today.