I’ll admit some of these films got away from me, and then became rather difficult to actually watch for a while, but the catch up is in effect. Slowly but surely I’m getting back on track. So for this week’s edition of The Anticipated, we go back to the beginning of the year when love and zombies tried to make a splash before Valentine’s Day with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This film had a (let’s just say for now) troubled production history that sometimes made it seem like it would never get made. Was it able to deliver after all this time, or should it have maybe stayed in development? Let’s dive right in to find out.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (February 5th 2016)
How was it?
Actually, it was rather bad. For a film with this level of pedigree, it still managed to deliver as generic a movie as possible. The humor from the book it is based on is basically gone, and instead we are left with a uninspired horror action film that never really knows what to do with itself–or its performers, for that matter, which is a shame because so much of the casting is quite good. Lily James is a solid choice to play Elizabeth Bennet, Bella Heathcoate is a rather good Jane–really, all of the Bennet clan is pretty well cast, but never really given enough to work with, and that includes Charles Dance as Mr. Bennet. This is even more true for Lena Headey as Lady Catherine, who is given just enough to do to make it clear that she could have been really awesome at this role if there was anything for her to work with at all in the script.
Meanwhile, the male leads mostly don’t work, for a variety of reasons. Sam Riley only seems to know how to bring brooding anger to every aspect of his turn as Mr. Darcy. Jack Huston, while better, also never really works as Wickham because the film rushes his character progression, so that he always seems more villainous than he is initially supposed to. Douglas Booth is adequate as Mr. Bingley, but he is never really given enough to do, if we are being honest, Bingley is not the best character anyhow.
There is one major exception to all of this, though: Matt Smith as Mr. Collins. Smith is amazing, as he is the only actor that seems to understand the ridiculousness of the film he is in, and absolutely commits to every bit of absurdity that makes up Collins’ character. Smith is a delight here, as he looks like he is actually having fun on screen, and his energy helps elevate almost any scene he is in. When he makes a show of how “good” a dancer he is, jumping around with tremendous amounts of flair and overdramatic movements, it is genuinely hilarious, which is something most of the film seems to have forgotten is supposed to be the point.
With the glaring exception of Matt Smith, however, most people in this film seem to be rather miserable, which is sad because this should have been such a fun movie. The action is pretty generic, other than some cool camera shots and effects with blood splatter and creative angles. The final fight doesn’t work at all because the film condenses what should have been about 45 minutes into 20, and in general the film just misses the point of its own material.
The one notable exception is the fight between Elizabeth and Darcy after his first marriage proposal. The fight is done remarkably well, and showcases the tensions between the two characters. It is also quite funny, and feels like the book it is based on instead of some hollow copy. There is an energy to this scene that is mostly lacking from this film. Lily James absolutely nails this scene, and shows why in a better movie she could have been a good Elizabeth Bennet. (This could also been said about Benjamin Walker in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, who would have made a very good Lincoln in a better movie, so maybe this is just a thing with films based on Seth Grahame-Smith books.)
That scene aside, however, P&P&Z really struggles to define itself. The music and score is boring. The zombies don’t do much, and you are constantly left asking why this film was PG-13 (yeah, yeah we all know the answer, but it’s cathartic to ask anyway). The film never figures out how to mesh its romance, action, comedy, and horror genres together (which to be fair is rather hard, and even Smith doesn’t really bother with doing all of them) That all comes together to make this a rather lifeless film.
Isn’t this based on…?
The book by Seth Grahame-Smith Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which you know is based on Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, and of course by based on, I mean it’s Pride and Prejudice with zombies.
Did it warrant its selection in The Anticipated?
No. But at the same time, its place on this list was always a special one based on my own personal curiosity about how this film turned out after years of being in development hell–something I witnessed both first hand and from afar. So in that sense the film did what I wanted. It existed, and I was able to judge it on screen, but man, it is bad.
From a financial standpoint, P&P&Z only cost around $28 million, which is not that much by movie standards, and should have been easy to recoup. Instead, it only made around $16 million worldwide, and disappeared from the theatres very quickly (not Jem quickly, but that is a whole other level of failure). So what the hell happened?
Well, generally speaking when a film goes through multiple writers, directors, leading women and men, and even studios, it doesn’t have much a chance to succeed. This film started at Lionsgate before being released by Screen Gems. Natalie Portman was originally slated to star in it before she dropped out, and numerous names were thrown out before Lily James fell into the studio’s lap (then they wasted her, but doesn’t change it was a good casting). Bradley Cooper and Justin Timberlake were involved at times. The film went from having David O’Russell as its director to almost Mike White to actually Craig Gillipsie and then finally Burr Steers who also rewrote the script that already had multiple writers and rewrites. These rewrites made the film feel like way too many different things–such as the film’s inability to make up its mind if the zombies are supposed to be reasoned with (which would make Wickham somewhat correct) or just murdered. There are clearly two different ideas going on in this script, and the film never really commits to one, which leaves the story in constant conflict with itself. Combine all of this with the difficult task of adapting this book in the first place, and I don’t think the film ever really had a chance.
The other secret problem with this movie is that even though Pride and Prejudice is a really good book, it just barely pulls everything off. So much of the book’s plot only works because of Jane Austin’s deft straddling of the line between proper character development and plot movement. There is a lot of subtle work in this book, and once you start to change anything, that triggers a chain reaction that can be disastrous. The movie did its best to streamline things to keep things moving, but everything the film cut made things more and more awkward and forced. Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy after a letter, and no longer has many of the beats in either book that gave her the time to properly express these feelings. This is not a story that can be rushed, and the fact that it is here is disastrous.
That doesn’t mean changes can’t be made for the better. For example, this movie, much like the webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, fixes the the fact that Austen (and by extension Smith) throw Lydia under the bus. That’s an improvement. But this is not a book that can be messed with too much if you still expect the story to work. Smith understood that, and changed only what he absolutely had to in order to make the joke work, but the film cuts too many corners to try and cram everything in, and that leaves it feeling soulless, rushed, and bad. I would like to say the movie knew this as well, but the sequel set up in the mid-credits says otherwise, which is just sad.
Would I recommend it to others?
Not really. Not even as a movie to watch while drunk. It just isn’t very entertaining. But maybe if you really love Matt Smith, there is just enough there to watch.
How would I rate it?
This film is a mess of failed ambition that showcases the problems that result when a movie gets stuck in development hell. Still, there are moments of glory, and the fact that this film even exists at all is a minor miracle, so on the handy Anticipation Meter it receives 3.5 knives in corsets out of 10. There is not much to really be that excited about with this film, and while I guess I am glad it exists, it could have been so much better, and that just left me feeling sad.
For an actual rating: This movie is bad, and not much of any of it works, other than Matt Smith and one great fight scene. Still, those combined with the glimpses of how good the Bennet sisters could have been stops the film from hitting absolute rock bottom, so it gets 1.5 stars out of 4. Ultimately Pride and Prejudice and Zombies continues the grand tradition of Dumpuary, as Screen Gems basically threw this film to the slaughter because they knew it was going to fail.
That’s it for this edition of The Anticipated. This film proved to be a disappointment, but hopefully the next one, Laika’s Kubo and The Two Strings, will not. Laika really let me down with its last film, The Boxtrolls, but I have high hopes for Kubo, which looks to be a real winner with some of the most amazing animation I have ever seen.