Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lives of the Dead (Zombieland and The Girlfriend Experience)


It's appropriate that Zombieland, the surprise hit horror-comedy, climaxes at an amusement park. The movie is a "ride" in the best possible sense: fun, frightening, and moves like a breeze. Also fittingly, it stars Jesse Eisenberg in what is essentially a reprise of his sensitive intellectual virgin from Adventureland, and it's a welcome return. His character, named Columbus, is just as ungainly and abashed yet surprisingly resourceful. Throughout the film, Columbus explains the rules for survival in this post-apocalyptic zombiefied world, and by the end is forced to consider revising the most important one: Don't Be A Hero. Eisenberg is very funny, in a Woody Allen-in-Bananas kind of way, and he nicely sets the movie's tone: that struggling to survive shouldn't keep one from trying to get laid.

One reason why I hate the horror genre -- its grinding humorlessness -- isn't an issue in Zombieland. Like Shaun of the Dead, this movie is an example of "happy horror," and if it lacks the former film's satirical edge (i.e., Brits keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of being devoured), Zombieland's steady stream of gags moves it far away from torture-porn. Director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick give you just enough to care about the characters without making them a drag. And their central quartet of actors are game: in addition to Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin appear as a savvy pair of grifters named Wichita and Little Rock, while Woody Harrelson makes the most of Tallahassee, the gung-ho redneck who enjoys killing zombies a little too much. I find Harrelson hard to predict between two extremes. He's either terrific or terrible and he's wonderful here, one of the defining roles of his career.

I like how the characters are named after their hometowns, as if they are their sole surviving representatives. And, like Hokahey, I loved the vividness of images like the one of Breslin running in an Indian headdress, feathers flying in slow-motion. I wasn't too crazy about the big meta in-jokey cameo from a famous movie star about halfway into the picture, but it caps with a killer punchline. Zombieland is a silly, goosey trifle, but it has energy, humor and verve, rare qualities in our post-apocalyptic comedy wasteland.


The rampaging flesh-eaters of Zombieland have more of a pulse than anyone in Steven Soderbergh's recent HD movies about the living dead. His first, the atrocious Bubble (2005), hewed closely to the Kelly Reichardt/indie-arthouse view of small-town America as a hopeless vortex where nonsentient beings grunt and stagger in a dazed stupor and respond to news of a murder in their midst with a "Bummer, man!" shrug. (There are examples of this in areas where I have lived, but there has also been the occasional joke now and then.) The erotic cosmos of The Girlfriend Experience would seem to offer a better opportunity for this egghead auteur to show signs of life, yet it too is where joy and laughter go to die. Sasha Grey's high-priced prostitute wears a perpetually jaded expression, but her edges are dull; and the character's one quirk -- an interest in "personology" -- is for Grey as an actress one quirk too many. Similarly, her gallery of clients, including the man she falls for, are indistinct and ill-defined. One scene featuring real-life film critic Glenn Kenny's "Erotic Connoisseur," a sleazy reviewer of escort services, gives the dismal proceedings a triple-jolt of energy, appetite and malice, but Soderbergh disposes of him lest he threaten to make things interesting.

Set in New York around the time of last year's economic meltdown, The Girlfriend Experience makes a half-assed feint at topicality, its corollaries between prostitution and capitalism mapped out with more wit and insight 25 years ago in Risky Business. Soderbergh's flair for experimentation used to produce sensational amalgams of art and entertainment like The Limey and Out of Sight. Lately, though, his goal seems to be making films that are as off-putting as possible -- non-movies with non-stars resulting in non-experiences.
 

14 comments:

Hokahey said...

A very interesting pair of reviews - a zombie comedy and a portrait of a high-priced prostitute. Your connecting factor is that "The rampaging flesh-eaters of Zombieland have more of a pulse than anyone in Steven Soderbergh's recent HD movies about the living dead." What connects them for me is that they are two of my favorite movies of the year.

Zombieland first - we see a lot of the same strengths here. I agree that Harrelson's performance is a comeback. I like how you consider Eisenberg funny "in a Woody Allen-in-Bananas kind of way." Very true. Well said. As for the cameo, I was a little disappointed as well, but the whole film is a fun ride.

As for The Girlfriend Experience, I saw it back when it was released in theaters and on Comcast On Demand simultaneously. I saw it on Comcast, taped it, and I've watched it three times. While at the same time I might agree with most of your criticisms, I found the character of Chelsea very touching. While we might abhor what she does, she provides "the girlfriend experience," something that men find very satisfying - and yet she has needs as well. While the low-budget, call-the-bad-lighting-and-camera-angles-artsy style is irksome, I still enjoyed this film for Grey's portrayal of an enigmatic character. I say much more that you might disagree with here - and thanks so much for including the link to my Zombieland post.

Craig said...

I'm not sure why I thought of "Bananas" but it may have popped in there while watching Eisenberg do his reluctant hero shtick (which is very appealing). Even the big cameo, in a weird way, reminded me of how Woody used Howard Cosell and other well-known celebrities to comic effect. The cameo took me out of "Zombieland" while watching it but it's funnier in retrospect. (I also love the quip about another actor's house being the right place to find a Twinkie.) I was on the fence about seeing it until reading your description of Abigal Breslin in the Indian garb, so thanks for that. It's a fun movie, a real crowd-pleaser.

Excellent review of "The Girlfriend Experience." (I'd read it before, but it had been a while.) I like the idea of the movie: that instead of a hooker with a heart of gold, we have one who ignores her own rules and becomes the victim of her own con. Problem is, for me, Grey does well with cynicism but can't make the crucial transition to lovesick idealist; and Soderbergh does her no favors by keeping the john offscreen for nearly the entire movie, so we have no idea what she's responding to. It's choices like that where, frankly, I don't know what the hell he thinks he's doing these days. The scattered structure of the narrative was interesting but that's something Soderbergh has done before to greater effect. The final scene, where a sad, lonely man comes while Grey embraces him, is an interesting moment but should have been a beginning, not an ending.

Hokahey said...

Well said about the cameo appearance. It does take you out of the reality of the story. I like the scenes in the mansion. That's one of the vicarious pleasures of the film. Of course you'd pick a Hollywood mansion to hide in if you could pick any place. But, the cameo didn't do much for me other than provide a few chuckles.

Glad you read my Girlfriend piece. I totally agree that we needed to see more of this Mr. Right she plans to go away with. Who is the guy in the apartment who says, "Should I come outside, or do you want to come in?" and then invites her out for coffee? I'm assuming it's the guy, or am I wrong?

Yeah, the ending ... well, it says a lot: she provides a compassionate service but her life is kind of pathetic. I liked that irony.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: What is it with you lately? You're just wrong about everything!

Seriously though ...

I skipped the Zombieland stuff because I still haven't seen it and plan to. As for Girlfriend, I can understand why people wouldn't like it, but I did, for the most part. It lingered with me. Still, I love this description: "non-movies with non-stars resulting in non-experiences." I've seen that before, even if I disagree that it applies to Girlfriend.

Craig said...

Jason,

I knew you and Hokahey were bigger fans of "Girlfriend" than I was. I was into it until the reenactment of the JK wedding video at the end. Total betrayal of the film's tone, though that Glenn Kenny's got some moves.

Craig said...

But seriously. To damn "Girlfriend Experience" with faint praise, I will say it's more accomplished than "Bubble," the latter of which rates right up there with the longest 70 minutes of my life. Like David Edelstein during the last half-hour of "Solaris" (Tarkovsky's, not Soderbergh's), it's about the only time I've yelled "End! End!" at the screen.

More accomplished, but still a monotonous drag.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good JK video quip. Didn't see that coming. Made me almost spit up my water.

As for the last point ...

"End! End!" Oh, I've thought that a bunch. That would be a good (but painful to remember) top 10 list sometime.

Jason Bellamy said...

OK. So I saw Zombieland. I actually thought it was slow. I mean, it's only 80 minutes long or something, so in that respect it's a breeze; it can't help but get to the climax quickly. But I spent the whole movie waiting for it to start.

If that sounds like I didn't enjoy myself, well, that's not quite right. Zombieland isn't offensive in any way, but that's about the best compliment I can give it. I laughed out loud, I dunno, maybe three times, four tops. And I enjoyed those laughs, but I was actually underwhelmed by Eisenberg (maybe because it feels so close to The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland, both of which I like much better) and Harrelson, who I thought seemed like a great character in the preview but here seemed, well, just OK.

I guess I finished it wanting more of the moments I liked -- the quick montage in the car showing all the different conversations as they head West -- and less of the rest...whatever the rest is.

Craig said...

Interesting about Eisenberg. I agree he's basically doing the same thing he's done before. The difference is I've never seen that kind of character as the hero in this kind of movie before, so that made it unique for me. I enjoyed the rules, the opening credits, the characters, the goofy tone. I don't think it's an unforgettable classic or anything, but I got a kick out of it.

Craig said...

Re: Jason, your Twitter comment: "So you're Woody Harrelson. Which three performances in your career give you the greatest pride?" I dunno, I think he's had an eclectic, interesting career: The People vs. Larry Flynt, Welcome to Sarejevo, White Men Can't Jump, Kingpin, Wag the Dog, The Thin Red Line, A Prairie Home Companion, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, A Scanner Darkly, Transsiberian, No Country for Old Men, Zombieland. Granted, fewer highs than someone like Denzel Washington, but he has fewer stinkers to his credit too.

And there's always Cheers.

Jason Bellamy said...

It's been an interesting career. If I'm Harrelson, I'm proudest of my performances in White Men Can't Jump, Larry Flynt and ... Prairie Home Companion. Yes, the last one is a small part, but it's a terrific performance that brings out some of Harrelson's best talents.

(I agree on Cheers. That's still up there, but I was just thinking movie roles.)

Back to Zombieland, I enjoyed it enough, and I agree with you that while Eisenberg's performance is familiar the role that he plays isn't common to the genre. I also appreciated that the movie wasn't filled with 'zombies jumping out at you' scenes, which would have become tiresome.

It was enjoyable enough. I'm just kind of surprised it got made. It's not incredibly action packed (other than the end) nor is it incredibly funny (I know others would disagree). But being surprised it got made isn't the same thing as saying that it didn't deserve to be. I just have no faith in Hollywood.

Craig said...

Agreed on "Flynt" and "White Men." Harrelson is at his most dazzling in the first and charismatic in the second. I also really enjoy his brief part in "No Country." ("You look like the kind of man who wouldn't waste a chair") and admire his dramatic work in "Welcome to Sarejevo." Have you ever seen "Transsiberian"? He's quite good in that film, cast against type as a Hitchcockian Decent Everyman, and somewhat overshadowed by a great performance from Emily Mortimer. It's a quietly effective turn in a buried treasure of a movie.

It's apparent that Harrelson thrives with a strong director at the helm: Forman, Shelton, and Altman from your examples, and Michael Winterbottom, the Coens, and Brad Anderson from mine. (I'd love to see what Tarantino could do with him.) I agree with Bruce Diones in the New Yorker that his work in "Zombieland" is "the kind of genre acting that doesn't get much notice, but it's a gleeful rampage of a performance." Depending on the quality of the inevitable sequels, I think he'll be remembered for it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Good points, all.

As it turns out, this weekend I saw the trailer for The Messenger for the first time. Maybe that role will be on the Harrelson Mr. Rushmore ...

Craig said...

I've heard rumblings about "The Messenger." We'll see.