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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

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Nicholas Hoult stars as a zombie with heart in "Warm Bodies."
Nicholas Hoult stars as a zombie with heart in "Warm Bodies."

Charming cast gives "Warm Bodies" a pulse

Despite the whole being a soulless walking corpse thing, it's a good time to be a zombie. With vampires fading out of popularity, zombies have become the hottest supernatural creature in pop culture. We've used them as shotgun fodder in hundreds of video games, watched them in television shows – namely "The Walking Dead" – dressed up like them for Halloween (or any day we damn well please) and dreamed up zombie survival plans in case the day comes when there's no more room in hell.

Now, "Warm Bodies" wants us to do something new: fall in love with the shuffling man-eaters.

Of course, this is easier said than done, what with the whole eating brains thing a little hard to swallow. Writer/director Jonathan Levine proved with last year's cancer comedy "50/50" that he's not afraid of trying new and intriguing genre combos, and while "Warm Bodies is nowhere near as successful as his previous effort (or "Shaun of the Dead," the king of the zombie comedies), it's a noble, sweetly performed zom-rom-com.

Nicholas Hoult (soon to play the title character in Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer") plays R, a bored young member of the shuffling undead. R passes the time meandering through an airport terminal, attempting to cling to whatever humanity he has left by conversing with his friend M (Rob Corddry from "The Daily Show") and avoiding bonies, dark soulless skeletons who will chow down on anything without a care.

A zombie, even one as personable as R, still has to eat, though. It's during a hunt for food when R runs into a band of young survivors, including Julie (Teresa Palmer), looking for supplies. Even though he's dead, he's attracted to Julie, and after noshing on her boyfriend's (Dave Franco, James' little brother) brains, he brings Julie back to his airplane home for protection. There, the two develop a relationship that's slowly curing R and potentially the rest of the zombie horde. Forget medicine or a cure; all these zombies need is the power of love.

Call me cynical, but you're telling me that the love between a father and his child, or spouses wasn't enough to reawaken the zombies' humanity, but the barely fledgling romance between these two is the love story to redeem mankind? I'm not convinced.

The main problem is the characters themselves, who are roughly sketched out by Levine's screenplay (adapted from Isaac Marion's novel). Julie is the biggest victim, switching unnaturally between lively romantic and jaded realist. After she's brought to safety by R, she goes through a flurry of emotions – sad, scared, romantically attracted, intrigued, guarded – but none of them feel like real human responses, a problem considering Julie is supposed to be the human half of our love-struck duo.

The script attempts to explain away some of these inconsistencies, but it comes off as lazy, and Palmer's performance struggles to stay with her character's flighty emotions.

So the humans don't act human, and the zombies, well, they don't really seem like zombies either. In order to help make "Warm Bodies" palatable, Levine has to come up with methods of humanizing his zombie lead. Some, such as R's humorously droll and self-referential voiceover, work surprisingly well (that's right; I actually liked voiceover).

For the most part, however, these zombies seem too nice and too cozy to be zombies. R can turn on record players, play the hand-slap game and even form words with his zombie buddies. Much like how "Twilight" defanged vampires, "Warm Bodies" attempts to make the undead less grim and color over the creatures' unpleasantness for the sake of cute romance.

The film can try to humanize him as much as it wants – with Hoult's handsome looks or a sweet indie soundtrack –but it can't escape the fact that he's still the guy who ate your boyfriend's brains. And you thought forgetting her birthday would be hard to live down.

Don't let my reference to "Twilight" scare you off, though. Where the reviled series struggled – the self-seriousness, the performances as wooden as a Forks forest – "Warm Bodies" gets its life. Hoult, finally cashing in the hype from his childhood performance in 2002's "About a Boy," is a lot of fun as R, hilariously loping around half-dead and getting the most out of every little reaction, grunt and dryly entertaining voiceover reading.

There's a fair amount of scene-stealers scattered throughout "Warm Bodies" as well. Corddry gets a couple of big laughs, in addition to a few surprisingly touching moments, as R's zombie sidekick, and Analeigh Tipton (the love-struck babysitter in 2011's "Crazy Stupid Love") brings welcome personality to her small role as Julie's snappy best friend.

Levine, for all of his trip-ups, brings a lot of clever fun and charisma to "Warm Bodies." His script may not generate great characters, but it does have a witty way with the zombie genre, as well as its romantic comedy elements. Thanks to him and his charming cast, "Warm Bodies" is about as sweet as a romance between a girl and a lifeless stumbling corpse – who loves her for her brains in the worst way possible – can be. 

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