EAT, BRAINS, LOVE (2019)

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Studio:      Gunpowder & Sky
Director:    Rodman Flender
Writer:      Michael Herro, David Strauss
Producer:  Van Toffler, Cody Zwieg, James Frey, Todd Cohen, Tony DiSanto, Tommy Coriale
Stars:     Jake Cannavale, Angelique Rivera, Sarah Yarkin, Patrick Fabian, Jim Titus, Kym Jackson, Kristin Daniel, Alex Stage, Ty Headlee

Review Score:

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Summary:

An unusual love triangle complicates a chase between two teenage zombies and the young government psychic sent to hunt them down.


Synopsis:     

Review:

Adapted from author Jeff Hart¡¯s same-named 2013 novel, ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± takes familiar John Hughes plotting and dresses up the zom-rom-com as a love triangle road movie lathered in as much humor as horror.

There¡¯s a zombie virus sweeping swiftly across the nation. But instead of a bloody bite, sexual intercourse transmits the undead infection from one horny high-schooler to another. These aren¡¯t your usual feral freaks either. The afflicted retain their senses and sensibilities, except when sudden urges for human flesh trigger uncontrollably violent transformations.

Cheerleader Amanda isn¡¯t proud of getting the Z-STD from Chazz, her jerky jock ex-boyfriend. Unpopular slacker Jake wishes he contracted the disease from his longtime crush Amanda. Instead, he got hit thanks to a one-time hookup with a punk rock girl in an alleyway. This isn¡¯t what Jake wanted to have in common with the object of his unreturned affection. Nevertheless, it¡¯s what brings the two teens together when they¡¯re forced to go on the run after they turn the cafeteria into a classmate buffet.

More problems arise when the Necrotic Control Division, the government¡¯s special force for containing the outbreak, tasks teenage telepath Cass with tracking down the fleeing fugitives. Trouble is, Cass develops a complicating crush of her own on Jake, much to the disapproving dismay of her obsessive C.O. Alastaire. If he can¡¯t get what he wants out of Cass, Alastaire will find Jake and Amanda by turning Chazz into his psychic slave dog. Add in a pair of lesbian zombies teaching the teens how to feed guilt-free on pedophiles, Amanda¡¯s conspiracy theorist brother, and Cass¡¯ trigger-happy partner Tom, and you¡¯ve got more than enough stops on an unusual ride through coming-of-age comedy and carnage.

In 2017, actress Amanda Peet wrote a New York Times article about reading an unflattering review of her performance in a play. The opinion burrowed so deep in her brain that Peet went out of her way to overcorrect in subsequent shows, and suffered shame because of it. In another instance, Peet¡¯s inner circle treated her like such a wounded soul after a second scathing review, she refused to read the critic¡¯s words for fear of how much more personal punishment might be inflicted on her psyche.

Peet¡¯s editorial occasionally echoes in my mind when I¡¯m writing. If I¡¯ve lost any ¡°edge¡± since I started covering horror cinema, it¡¯s because I grew cognizant of the fact that what I say may make it to the ears of hardworking people involved in indie productions. I have no problem calling out a particular person as legitimately lazy, even an a-hole, if I believe s/he deliberately treats an audience like idiots with a hacky DTV Amityville movie or whatever. But I will avoid being too flippant for the sake of a one-off wisecrack if it risks unnecessarily needling someone who doesn¡¯t deserve the hassle.

The point of this preamble is to clarify that if there were any other way to critique ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± without singling out a specific someone whose career isn¡¯t fully established, I would take that alternate route. I¡¯ll still couch my criticism as carefully as I can, but there is really no way to discuss ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡¯s¡± most problematic elephant in the room without talking about how utterly and completely wrong Jake Cannavale is for his namesake role.

Jake, if by chance you¡¯re reading this, follow Amanda Peet¡¯s example and don¡¯t.

Everyone else in the cast, even though they play semi-stereotypes, portrays a distinct person complemented by charming quirk. Angelique Rivera wonderfully melts a chilled initial impression of a typical self-absorbed hottie by proving Amanda isn¡¯t judgmental, except when she¡¯s jealous of Cass, and possesses true selflessness and slick wit to match Instagram-ready looks. Sarah Yarkin of ¡°Happy Death Day 2U¡± (review here) puts curly-haired cuteness into Cass¡¯ plain-faced pout. Cass seems so out of her element dressed in frumpy military greens that Yarkin tells an unspoken backstory with only an odd wardrobe and uncomfortable smirk.

Jake Cannavale on the other hand, builds a black hole that sucks all personality out of the screen. Michael Herro and David Strauss¡¯ script wants Jake to be a lovable loser, but Cannavale embodies his stoner-like alter ego as merely bored and unenthused. Jake¡¯s dialogue includes a handful of snippy lines, except Cannavale¡¯s delivery is so lethargic, jokes drown in a monotone mumble.

Jay Baruchel would have been perfect for Jake 20 years ago, as the character should be a nervously awkward nerd. Cannavale looks like a Brooklyn street tough mistakenly outfitted in a hoodie instead of a leather jacket. He doesn¡¯t sell ¡°perpetual bully target¡± at all. Worse, ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± asks us to accept that not one, but two highly desirable love interests are irrationally infatuated with Jake. I want to see the same thing they see in him, and ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± never shows us.

Jake¡¯s role requires an actor whose natural charisma could compensate for holes in characterization, especially since the movie sacrifices substance as it moves through action-oriented vignettes quickly. Cannavale doesn¡¯t possess the screen presence to bridge gaps in shortchanged fiction.

At Screamfest 2019¡¯s post-screening Q&A, Jake Cannavale was affably animated when asked, ¡°what¡¯s next for you?¡± Being simultaneously proud and self-effacing, Cannavale semi-jokingly touted a recent promotion at his food service day job. It was the first flash of unguarded honesty from him, and his good-humored humility made him relatable, funny, and fun. I wondered, why didn¡¯t director Rodman Flender make sure this incarnation of the actor showed up onscreen? Flender and/or the casting agent might be more at fault for failing Jake¡¯s character than Cannavale.

Speaking of Flender, you don¡¯t need to look at his r¨¦sum¨¦ to know the depth of his helming experience stems more from TV than from film. The episodic nature of ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± tells you itself.

Often frenetic, ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± plays fast and loose with its format, bounding from one setup to the next like it¡¯s packing a full season of plotlines into one 85-minute feature. This puts a hurried snap into pacing that suits the movie¡¯s manic energy just fine.

Flender¡¯s forte for flitting with commercial breaks and cliffhangers causes a kerfuffle when it comes to the film¡¯s incredibly abrupt conclusion. I truly had no idea what was happening when the movie suddenly cut to end credits. My first thought as the title card flashed was, ¡°that¡¯s a really weird place to insert a- oh wait, it¡¯s actually over?¡±

During the Q&A, the word ¡°ending¡± came up in a comment. Clearly this had been a previous topic of conversation as Flender immediately felt compelled to ask the audience, ¡°yeah, what did you guys think of that ending?¡± Teeth could be heard clenching as heads turned to and fro, with no one daring to speak the truth out loud. Flender deflected the confusion and interpreted polite silence by adding, ¡°it left you wanting more? That¡¯s what we were going for.¡± In the interest of getting out of the awkwardness, the crowd collectively shrugged, ¡°sure, whatever.¡±

Flender then reminded us ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± is based on a book, and that book has a sequel titled ¡°Undead with Benefits.¡± So go there if you want to find out what should have happened, I guess?

Some sloppy structuring and an unfortunate lead performance notwithstanding, ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡± retains a fair deal of horror-comedy charm. Although the pieces that don¡¯t fit are as noticeable as the ones that do, the film¡¯s hectic nature works well with its glib tone. This lets gags about molestation, masturbation, and homosexuality come off as more irreverent than offensive. Essentially, ¡°Eat, Brains, Love¡¯s¡± parts play much better than the sum total of the movie. Luckily, that¡¯s enough for anyone who isn¡¯t particularly picky to eke out a decent smidge of midbrow entertainment.

Review Score: 60