Sure, the premise is creepy, but Nicholas Hoult brings real life to an undead role.
In the centuries since young Romeo and Juliet first discovered their stars were crossed, Shakespeare's tale of woe has been recounted beyond counting on stage and page, in ditties and ballads (You and me, babe, how about it?), and on screens both large and small. Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film (itself following in the footsteps of more than a dozen cinematic predecessors) upped the ante with a controversial bit of nudity; a 1996 variant, Tromeo and Juliet, went all in with a giant mutant penis. For the arithmetically inclined, there have been both a Romeo + Juliet and a Romeo x Juliet. (Given the plot, it's odd that no one has yet resorted to subtraction or division signs.) The Bard's story has been told by way of feuding pizzeria owners in Verona, New Jersey, and, across the river, feuding caterers in the Bronx. There have famously been Sharks and Jets, and, less famously, cold warriors, robots, seals, pornographers, and garden gnomes. A few years back, the Royal Shakespeare Company actually tweeted the tale under the all too apt title Such Tweet Sorrow. If there were one play in the English language you'd imagine was fully played out by now, this would be it—but no, here comes Julian Fellowes taking time off Downton to pen his own adaptation, due out later this year.
How to make it all fresh again? Here's a thought: Have Juliet and Romeo meet cute when she stabs him in the heart with a knife after he's just killed and eaten her boyfriend. Stick with me here: you see, this time out she's a human being and he's a zombie. Not a glamorous vampire, fangs glinting priapically. No, an honest to goodness animated corpse, complete with all the shambling and grunting and (occasional) brain-eating.
This is hardly the most promising premise for a romantic comedy, but damned if Warm Bodies—directed by Jonathan Levine and adapted from the novel by Isaac Marion—doesn't somehow bring it to life. Nicholas Hoult stars as "R," the remaining letters of his name having been lost in the psychic fog of zombiedom. He and his ashen masses of fellow undead (notable among them Rob Corddry's "M"—no relation to the spymaster) make their home at the airport, as if waiting for a flight delayed indefinitely.
Blonde, pinkly alive Julie (Teresa Palmer), meanwhile, lives in a high-walled urban fortress with the remaining human survivors of an undisclosed apocalypse. When she and a team venture outside the wall in search of medical supplies, they encounter R and his own posse, out looking for a bite—and, whoosh, tucked in there amid the automatic-weapon fire and arterial spray, Cupid's arrow strikes. Her human companions dead, Julie returns with R to the airport, where he has a jetliner all to himself, like some cadaverous Ron Burkle. He plays her some LPs, she teaches him to drive, and pump by tentative pump—oh, get your mind out of the gutter, it's PG-13—his heart slowly begins to beat again.
There are hurdles to overcome, of course: Julie's disapproving father (John Malkovich, phoning it in a bit), R's habit of nibbling leftover bits of her boyfriend's brain, the violent attentions of a more degenerate species of skeletal zombie, and so on. But despite all these—and with the aid of an inevitable balcony scene—R eventually wins Julie's love.
And why shouldn't he? Hoult, who was a chubby-cheeked cherub in About a Boy and a seductive seraph in A Single Man, sets a new bar for post-mortem adorability as R. Though his mind is nimble in (very witty) voiceover, out loud he can only express himself in a series of groans and grumbles—as touching a metaphor for love-struck adolescence as we may see at the movies this year. "Stop staring," his internal monologue warns him at one point. "You're acting weird again." Julie can see it too: "It must be hard, being stuck in there." (Speaking from experience: Yes, it was.)
Palmer is an eminently likable presence—a bit like a less-pouty Kristen Stewart, if such a thing can be imagined—and Corddry demonstrates that no one delivers deadpan better than the undead. Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) continues his strong run, with direction that is deft, funny, and (given the subject matter) surprisingly tender. The soundtrack is a particular kick, making crafty use of songs ranging from "Sitting Here in Limbo" to "Missing You" to "Pretty Woman."
Is the premise of Warm Bodies a touch creepy? Yes it is, and it is probably safest not to subject the movie to much scrutiny, moral or physiological. But in contrast to the generic rom-com fluff we're typically offered in the run-up to Valentine's Day, this is a movie with a genuine heartbeat.