Full review-text after the jump:
PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES is the latest attempt to answer the question of whether or not you can stretch one joke into an entire movie, though this time the joke being adapted is less of the “setup-misdirection-punchline” and more of a “hey, isn’t it funny that this is a thing that exists” variety. Yes, COULD in fact read the original parody novel and get some laughs from it, but the main JOKE in play was that someone actually did sit down and rewrite a Jane Austen novel so that same basic story takes place in an alternate timeline where Regency Era Great Britain went through a zombie apocalypse that necessitated its heroes become martial-arts trained zombie-killers in addition to class-conscious countryside aristocrats. Set it on the shelf, let people flip through and discern “Oh my, they actually went all the way through with this, how silly!” and there you go the joke has been told.
Such as it is with the new movie adaptation, which has a certain amount of style amid some oddly haphazard direction and salvage-job editing to its credit but mainly seems to exist in service of trailers and YouTube mashups to be compiled later: It’s not at all unpleasant to sit through and at times hits some suitable high notes – but there’s no “joke” to be told in the movie-proper that’s any funnier than the mere fact that it actually IS a movie and not a 2 ½ minute Lonely Island skit of SNL.
Perhaps inevitably, making a movie out of a premise that by all rights ought to be a comedy sketch means that it really only feels engaged when it arrives a specifically-timed “Jane Austen Plus Zombies And Zombie-Hunting” setpieces that play out like skits in and of themselves: The Bennett Sisters violent rescuing a fancy party from a zombie attack? Funny! Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s argument over his proposal turning into a full-blown mixed martial-arts duel? Inspired! Keeping big chunks of the original dialogue intact even though scenes have been completely recontexualized? Clever! The connective tissue between segments to get us there? Not so much. To be perfectly honest, while also far from flawless, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPRIE HUNTER is overall probably the superior telling of this particular joke.
A lot of the blame for what doesn’t work has to be laid at the feet of director Burr Steers, who doesn’t seem to yet have a full handle on what to do with a large-budget film that requires such a careful balance of tone and aesthetic to get its central gags across. On the other hand, the film adds a few more conventional zombie-horror subplots to the story that pull the narrative even further away from the original; a strange decision since it’s actively undercutting the premise of its own joke. Then again, they’ve been working on the screenplay to this thing for a ridiculously long development cycle – hell, at one point years ago David O. Russell and Natalie Portman were supposed to make this, so by now it’s amazing that it got to screen at all.
What’s generally disappointing is that the fairly obvious opportunities for this to actually rise above its one-joke premise and have some real thematic merit are all but completely ignored. Zombies are better than almost any monster in terms of creating the opportunity for satire since they are LITERALLY walking caricatures of humanity. But PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES can’t seem to find anything to say about such fertile subject matter as the British class system, arbitrary rules of social decorum or even the broad observational humor at the expense of the landed gentry present in Austen’s original text – even though the poor zombies keep wandering through the frame practically SCREAMING: “Excuse me, sir! Would perchance anyone be having any need of an ideal allegorical shorthand for disruptive inhumanity among humans?”
But, instead, the movie is basically content to just settle in on “Stuff that looks like THE WALKING DEAD happening to people who look like DOWNTON ABBEY” and ride it out to the end. There are some laughs to be had, some inventive action beats and the cast all seems exceptionally “game” for keeping straight faces through all of this absurdity… but it just doesn’t quite get all the way there. I didn’t hate it, I laughed at it, ironically the people who enjoy it MOST will almost certainly be hardcore Jane Austen fans who’ll get all the references and scene-reimaginings; but in terms of all the hype PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES just doesn’t come fully to life.