Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Reviewing Jane: A Lady's Imagination Is Very Rabid

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time. (This is a previous review that has been retrofitted to be as such)

Year: 2016
Director: Burr Steers
Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Would you believe that I’ve been waiting years for a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie? When I sat down to read the source material, Seth Grahame-Smith’s novelty mash-up novel, I was greatly disappointed to find that he had merely copy-pasted Jane Austen’s masterpiece and added a reference to zombies every other paragraph or so. It was a lazy cash grab, but I instantly hoped they would make it into a movie, because the concept is stellar and the visual medium would reduce its slavish devotion to the text of the novel.

I stand by that idea. A movie of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a great idea. Just not this movie.

Turns out, beggars CAN be choosers.

Running through the plot feels like a pointless exercise given the title of this movie, but let’s do it for the sake of tradition. Country girl Lizzy Bennet (Lily James) lives with her parents and sisters, all under pressure from their mother to get themselves married off, although she resists the idea. When Mr. Bingley (the preposterously beautiful Douglas Booth) moves into town with the sour zombie hunter Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), Lizzys sister Jane (Bella Heathcoate) falls for Bingley while Lizzy herself catches Darcy’s eye.

Thus begins a tentative romance between two stubborn, star-crossed lovers as the British prepare for battle with the zombie hordes that threaten the London stronghold. Also, Lizzy has a brief dalliance with one Lt. George Wickham (Jack Huston, who you probably don’t recognize as the new Ben-Hur because nobody saw that movie), who shows her that the zombies may be forming an I Am Legend-esque society where they retain aspects of their humanity while the living senselessly slaughter them. But nothing comes of it because Grahame-Smith is not Richard Matheson.

Frankly, it’s insulting to even mention their names in the same sentence. Please accept my humblest apologies.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in a weird place, tonally. The characters in the story must take themselves seriously in order for the absurdity of the premise to land. This is also true of the satire present in the source material. So far so good. Unfortunately the satirical elements of Austen are damped by the zombie mayhem, shifting the priorities of the characters too far from their original focus on marriage-above-all to be effective.

If the film had doubled down on its action sequences and gross zombie mutilations, it could have overcome that flaw by instilling a further sense of fun, but the gleefully grotesque potential is hampered by a PG-13 rating, leaving us with a social satire/absurdist mash-up in which neither of those halves are particularly funny. This maddeningly delicate tonal balance could still have worked, but it definitely required a lighter directorial hand than the one attached to 17 Again auteur Burr Steers.

According to IMDb, David O. Russell was originally attached to helm this movie. It probably would have still sucked, but imagine a universe where that happened. Delightful.

So, no. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not fun. It is not gory. It is not even a little bit campy. It’s still better than the book, but what’s the point of comparing a dumpster to a landfill? The film is mostly a desaturated, overserious slog that’s utterly dull to watch, like The Witch only with no obvious intention and not a single memorable frame. There are occasional sparks of life in the shambling corpse of a film, like the expositional opening credits presented in pop-up book form or a fun twist on the Indiana Jones map cutaway, depicting the characters’ journeys as a droplet of blood running down a map. But these genuinely delightful design elements are buried under a pile of glum, grey gunk.

It doesn’t help that the plot is a shambles. The guardrails of the Pride and Prejudice text (in which – spoilers, I guess – no major character dies) prevent anything particularly interesting or deadly from happening, and the one wholecloth addition to the plot – the zombie war and the unique way the zombies can avoid losing their human faculties – is a dreadful mess. The battlefront scenes require Gahame-Smith to use his own imagination, so they’re a nonsensical slurry. The main villain’s endgame is wholly perplexing and the film introduces a strangely supernatural element (four literal horsemen of the apocalypse) that it completely ignores. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies constantly hints that there’s a far more interesting film going on somewhere around the edges, but that just makes it all the more frustrating that we’re frogmarched through the Darcy-Lizzy romance, brought to life by two actors who have absolutely zero chemistry. (James is fine here, but Riley grumbles out his lines like he’s slowly being turned to stone).

Every addition to the source material is muddled, and their presence renders the power of the original story impotent, so there’s no particular reason for the film to exist. Jane Austen’s dialogue is still great, so at least it’s possible to sit through the film and survive the experience. And there’s one shining jewel in the film’s blasted, bloodless firmament: Matt Smith’s excellent and hilarious performance as the foppish Parson Collins. But this film stabs itself in the back at every turn, rendering it an extravagantly pointless affair.

TL;DR: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a boring sludge of taking itself too seriously.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 917
Other Films Based on Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard, 1940)
Pride and Prejudice (miniseries - Langton, 1995)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Maguire, 2001)
Pride & Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy (Black, 2003)
Bride & Prejudice (Chadha, 2004)
Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005)
Unleashing Mr. Darcy (Winning, 2016)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers, 2016)
Before the Fall (Geisler, 2016)
Marrying Mr. Darcy (Monroe, 2018)
Christmas at Pemberley Manor (Theys, 2018)
Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe (McBrearty, 2018)

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