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'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' wouldn't have worked anyway

A one-joke bestseller gets a sloppy movie with PG-13 gore.
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    Sam Riley's Mark Darcy only teases us with a wet shirt moment in "Pride and Prejud|Screen Gems

‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’
Director:
Burr Steers
Stars: Lily James, Sam Riley
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Is it that hard? Is it really that hard making an enjoyable period romp in which Jane Austen quip-flingers battle the undead? Of course it is! You have to find actors adept at both arch romantic swooning and coldhearted badassery. You have to meld genres that share little in the way of Venn diagram crossover. Horror fans must suffer through tasteful, immaculately costumed pageantry before getting to splattered blood and guts. Meanwhile Austen heads have to swoon at some of literature’s finest, most flowery banter before flinching at exploded heads. In other words, it sounds amusing in theory, and then only for a bit. For it to work in practice you need a miracleworker.

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The “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” movie — based on a gimmicky bestseller by Seth Grahame-Smith — didn’t get one. At one point it was to be helmed by David O. Russell, with Natalie Portman as Austen’s headstrong Elizabeth Bennet. But even that didn’t seem right. What it got isn’t ideal either. The director is Burr Steers, the snide smartass behind “Igby Goes Down,” who can handle neither Austen flirting nor beasties being dispatched. Nor can he find a tone that can elegantly wobble between two extremes.

His stars don’t help. Lily James, of “Downton Abbey” and “Cinderella,” is a fierce but not very charming Elizabeth, who, on top of fending off unwanted suitors, also keeps blades underneath her gowns. She doesn’t have much chemistry with Sam Riley’s Mark Darcy, now a zombie hunter who’s more unpleasant than fastidious, and doesn’t even recreate the beloved miniseries’ wet shirt strut. Because that would be funny. And this doesn’t seem to realize it should be a comedy. (Only Matt Smith, as an appropriately befuddled Mr. Collins, knows this should be a joke.)

But there’s something here, buried under monotonous head explosions and murky visuals that hang over even the fizzier exchanges. We see a high society forced to live with unending war, with threats to their civilization. Darcy is hardened even more than Austen imagined him, and his and Elizabeth’s contentious courtship should manifest itself in brutal, bloody fighting. Their romantic dalliances and need to pair off should become more touching — distractions from the horrors around them, and pretty important in their own right. After all, the Bennet girls need to marry because they still live in a sexist, patriarchal society.

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None of this ever quite clicks, and that’s all the more evident when it almost does. Elizabeth and Darcy have a fight in which their blades keep cutting off buttons on their stifling clothes. But it has a wan payoff. It’s all missed opportunities, and there’s something unthinkingly classist about the zombies themselves, which could easily be read as the poor taking out the idle rich. It’s a so-so Austen adaptation paired with a neutered zombie movie, arriving in an era, thanks to “The Walking Dead” and the “World War Z” film, in which we’ve allowed our undead entertainments to go PG-13.

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Perhaps it was a fool’s errand to begin with. Grahame-Smith’s novel is a lot of work for a joke that doesn’t get much funnier than the title, and then not all that funny in the first place. The movie at least had the benefit of hot zombie action, but take away the dialogue ripped straight for Austen and it’s just more of the same in fancy clothes. It gets a C for effort.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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