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The iTunes 99 Cent Movie of the Week: ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’

Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.

This week, Lizzy and the Bennett sisters battle gender roles and undead hordes in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

To Succeed in Polite Society, a Young Woman Must Be Many Things

The English countryside is a tough place for a lady to grow up. With all the manners and morality and gender politics and … zombies, one has little choice but to keep calm. And carry a big sword. For Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James) and her charming but deadly sisters, those are words to live by. After all, you never know when Mr. Right might turn up. And you never know if he’ll be a brain-starved eater of human flesh. Or worse yet, tolerable. But it can be as difficult to win a man’s heart as it is to smash an undead skull. And a young woman is expected to do both with equal grace. ‘Cause a zombie apocalypse is no reason not to look for a good husband. That search takes a few unexpected turns in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But a couple of clever twists aren’t enough to save Burr Steers’ film from becoming a bland, barely tolerable lark. And a bloody stain on its noble source material.   

Pride and prejudice and zombies

Keep Your Swords as Sharp as Your Wits

The source material in question is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, of course. Not the Seth Grahame-Smith genre mashup that spawned this film. No, that’s not a knock against Grahame-Smith’s clever as hell novel. And no, I’m not being unfair holding one up to the other. Thanks to some sketchy public domain laws, Grahame-Smith annexed much of the actual text from Austen’s beloved novel of manners for his own book. So much so that Austen got a co-writer credit on the book’s cover. But it was Grahame-Smith’s ability to blend his own voice and his own blood-soaked story into Austen’s world that made that book such a fun read. That brings us to the movie. Which is essentially Austen’s work now twice removed. Well, you know what they say about making copies of a copy, right? You lose texture. You lose quality. You lose authenticity. And in this case, you end up with the muddled, mess of a film that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Writer/Director Burr Steers shoulders much of the blame for the film’s shortcomings. With a slate of smaller scaled film’s like Igby Goes Down (2002), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), and 17 Again (2009) to his credit, Steers is clearly in over his head with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There’s just nothing in that resume to suggest he could handle the action and gore that Grahame-Smith brought to the story. There’s even less to suggest he could handle Austen’s language. Adapting Grahame-Smith’s novel himself, Steers’ careless sense of pacing leaves Pride and Prejudice and Zombies feeling hurried and disjointed. His tin-eared dialogue pushes the film into the ‘barely tolerable’ realm.

Case in point, about halfway through the film, Lizzy (James) refuses an offer of marriage from the estimable Mr. Darcy (a poorly cast Sam Riley). If you’re familiar with Austen’s book, then you know that a marvelous match of wits and words ensues. If you’ve read Grahame-Smith’s novel, then you know he kept the language, but blended a little sword play into the mix and amplified the sexual tension buried below the surface of Austen’s work. In theory, this scene should translate well to film. But Steers executes the action with the static stare of the undead. And he buries the language under the half-baked emotion that remains. Then he throws in a couple of cheap flashes of skin to seal the deal and sour the moment beyond salvage. The fierce battle of wits and wills that should see Lizzy prove herself equal to Darcy in every way becomes little more than adolescent titillation. In the process, Steers undermines key aspects of Austen’s work. Sometimes words are sexier than skin. And sometimes less really is more.

Except when it comes to zombies. And there’s a surprising lack of zombies in this film. There’s an even more surprising lack of scares. And drama. And romance. And comedy. Which means that Steers somehow wrote and directed those elements out of his movie. ‘Cause they were there on the page. In Austen’s original book and even in Grahame-Smith’s mashup. With such fertile source material, you have to wonder how none of that ended up on the screen.

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Worth It?

Save your dollar this week, ’cause Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a mess from beginning to end – minus a killer opening credit sequence. Outside of that 90 seconds or so, there’s little to like about Burr Steers’ film. Certainly nothing to fall in love with. It isn’t funny. It isn’t clever. It isn’t even romantic. About a dozen times throughout this film I found myself wishing that I could turn it off and go watch Joe Wright’s lavish 2005 effort, Pride & Prejudice. And that’s exactly what I’m recommending you do. Wright’s film is warm and witty and romantic as hell. It’s everything that’s right about Austen’s novel. And everything that’s right about cinema. And it will only cost you $3.99. Just make sure you’ve got some kleenex handy. ‘Cause you’re likely to shed a tear or two.

But if you’re just not down for romance without a little bloodshed this week – you can always watch Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan gaze longingly at each other in the (other) $0.99 movie, Drive. Brutal and brooding and oh so beautiful, Drive is one of my favorite films of the decade. And features one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. It’s an absolute steal for $0.99. So steal it today and thank me later.

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