In the best and cleanest possible scenario, movie studios want us to see sequels as going back for seconds. “What a delicious meal,” says the audience strawman. “Too bad it isn’t an endless buffet on which I can gorge myself.” In that sense, the sequel is always presented as the extension of an olive branch — something that we will definitely like, because it’s what we want, because we ate the whole plate with glee the first time.
But going for seconds is never really as satisfying as the first round. It’s mainly just gluttony, pouring food on top of food for the sheer pleasure of excess. In that same sense, the very best thing a sequel can aspire to is being gluttonous. A sequel like Zombieland 2: Double Tap aspires to delivering absolutely nothing more than the first experience for a second time, but with its extremely hacky jokes and stuck-in-amber approach to storytelling, it’s way more like going back to the buffet and finding only a pile of discarded chicken bones.
Ten years have ostensibly passed since the events of the first film. The makeshift family made up of easily angered redneck Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), nerdy beta Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), his flinty and sarcastic girlfriend Wichita (Emma Stone) and her now 20-ish sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) have taken residence in the White House, where they live a semblance of a regular life until Wichita and Little Rock take off in the middle of the night. Wichita is getting cold feet because Columbus has proposed (using no less than the Hope diamond) and Little Rock is growing antsy from never spending any time with someone her age. Columbus and Tallahassee go out into the dangerous, zombie-filled world in order to bring the family back together again, finding a new dumb blonde girlfriend (Zoey Deutch) for Columbus and a somewhat age-appropriate, Elvis-loving love interest (Rosario Dawson) for Tallahassee.
Zombieland 2 treats its material like a beloved sitcom finally giving the people what they want rather than a belated sequel to a movie that was appreciated and successful upon release but has subsequently left absolutely no cultural footprint. With a film like Zombieland, “picking up where we left off” is likely the single-most harmful idea because it means that the writers (who, tellingly, springboarded off their gig on the first one towards writing the Deadpool movies) are infinitely more likely to rest on their laurels. And rest on their laurels they do, filling the movie with tired pop culture references and crowbarred-in one-liners that seem, somehow, to date from before the first movie.
Take, for example, the character of Madison, the dumb blonde portrayed by Deutch. She’s depicted as a completely vacuous airhead in the Paris Hilton mode — she even wears a fuzzy pink tracksuit straight out of 2002 – that everyone in the film holds in contempt — but where exactly is the need for the skewering of dumb blondes in 2019? Damn near everything that revolves around her character is filled with a strange, out-of-step contempt for a stereotype that doesn’t really exist anymore.
It’s not even about the politics of the thing, which are practically non-existent and perfunctory at best; it’s that, even for stereotypes, the stereotypes contained here are lazy and familiar. Little Rock eventually takes up with a drug-rug-wearing hippie named Berkeley (what else) who doesn’t believe in guns and putters around singing “Kumbaya” — possibly the exact same description you would get if you walked around any mall in North America and asked random (old) people to describe a hippie. That professional screenwriters are putting this level of care into a studio comedy (a dying breed, to boot) is profoundly depressing. Referential humour, in itself, is not necessarily the problem; as irritating as the two Deadpool movies can get, they are at the very least creative with their references. The references here are Big Bang Theory-level obvious and represent such a large percentage of what’s ostensibly funny (another large percentage is zombie heads exploding) that the movie can never recover.
There aren’t many jokes that land, precisely because so many of them immediately beeline to the most obvious punchline imaginable. Elvis-obsessed Tallahassee wants desperately to visit Graceland, and when they eventually make it there, the film unleashes an endless amount of surface-level Elvis jokes that eventually culminate in Tallahassee bashing in a zombie’s head and intoning “thank you, thank you very much” because of course he has to. It’s far from incompetent, which is somehow worse; the film is carefully crafted enough to, once in a while, set off the pleasure receptors inherent to the delivery of jokes, but the film seems specifically designed to incite a Pavlovian response to the very idea of a set-up and punchline. A sequence in which our two male leads meet a couple of evil doppelgangers (played by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch) gets the most laughs, but even that stretches out the one joke (you know, that they’re the same) past the breaking point.
Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun here despite the film’s transparently mercantile and sweaty construction. The film seems to have given up on itself, but the performers have not, and it’s generally their inherent likeability that makes Zombieland 2: Double Tap even remotely endurable. The great thing is that its lowest-common-denominator pitches and open-ended sitcom plotting means it’s ripe for a third installment if the movie is popular — and considering the way the crowd I saw it with reacted at a scene where Eisenberg reads a Walking Dead comic book, it’s an almost sure thing. ■
Zombieland 2: Double Tap opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 18. Watch the trailer here: