"Pride And Prejudice And Zombies" Undead On Arrival

Despite The New Yorker’s dismissal of 2009 parody novel Pride And Prejudice And Zombies as “Eighty-five percent [Jane] Austen, fifteen percent a television writer named Seth Grahame-Smith, and one hundred percent terrible,” the intrinsically one-joke book was a hit. A mad scramble over the movie rights ensued, with future “Silver Linings Playbook” filmmaker David O. Russell leading the charge.

Five years and several directors later, Burr Steers (“Charlie St. Cloud”) has marshaled the book to the big screen, its lone joke intact.

That would be its title, of course, one that the movie squanders from the top. The pop-up book opening credits are as good as things get, using the juxtaposition of Regency-era English costume drama and modern zombie flick to funny, atmospheric effect.

But it’s mostly a landslide from there, with the film – headlined by “Cinderella” breakout Lily James as protagonist Elizabeth Bennet – assuming a world where humans and zombies are already at war, a supposition that immediately deflates the fun inherent in the idea.

Sam Riley (“Maleficent”) makes a satisfactory co-lead as General Darcy, not just an eventual love interest for Elizabeth but monster hunter extraordinaire. There’s fun in the way Darcy hunts for dead flesh with houseflies and in how Elizabeth delivers her cheeky one-liners. Both actors fully commit to their characters’ dopey backstories, the former to an inane Shaolin training thread, the latter to an untraditional portrayal of one of literature’s great romantic archetypes.

As Darcy croaks his prickly dialogue and Elizabeth responds in kind, the actors’ slippery chemistry hints at the left-field monster mash-up goof-off the film might have been.

But invested performances and sturdy production values can’t save a halfhearted, noncommittal screenplay that’s unwilling to embrace its own silliness and unable to deliver the violence genre fans might expect. It certainly tests the limits of its PG-13 rating, but those moments are few and far between.

Moreover, the supporting cast ranges from uninspired to ghastly. Jack Huston (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) languishes in a throwaway take on George Wickham, Elizabeth’s other love interest, while Lena Headey (“300”) wastes away in an extended cameo as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, warrior supreme.

Yet, none are as ill-fitting as former “Doctor Who” star Matt Smith, whose mere appearance was met with cheers at this critic’s screening. Smith’s mile-wide take on clergyman Mr. Collins could have been effective in a different version of the movie, but it certainly doesn’t work in this one. Here he’s the worst kind of failed comedic relief, slowly turning from nuisance to full-on catastrophe with each subsequent appearance. The aforementioned cheers were quickly extinguished, a good analogy for the film itself.

At best, “Pride And Prejudice And Zombies” will sate fans of the book and not discomfit newcomers. Not quite a debacle, not at all a success, it ends up a thoroughly inconsequential adaptation that’s unlikely to shepherd a new wave of mash-ups to the big screen. No, it’s a novelty film to its core, the kind best left to lightly viewed cable reruns.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: February 5, 2016
Studio: Screen Gems (Sony)
Director: Burr Steers
Screenwriter: Burr Steers
Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for zombie violence and action, and brief suggestive material)