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.