Infectious horror-comedy Cooties is an energizing juggernaut until its seemingly inexhaustible ensemble cast members are outpaced by their respective characters’ quirks.
The film’s sugar-high main concept — summer school teachers try to survive the outbreak of a zombie-like disease that transforms grade-schoolers into raving flesh-eaters — plateaus once first-time co-directors Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott and co-writers Leigh Whannell (Insidious) and Ian Brennan (Glee) stop treating their protagonists like human-shaped punchlines and start using absurd circumstantial peril to define them.
The transition from dramatic comedy to comic drama proves tricky since Clint (Elijah Wood), a self-absorbed unpublished author, and his peers start as, essentially, one-note jokes. Closeted art teacher Tracy (30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer) and rape-obsessed paranoiac Rebekkah (Saturday Night Live‘s Nasim Pedrad) are only funny whenever McBrayer and Pedrad’s deft comic timing and knack for physical comedy speak louder than their scripted, borderline offensive shtick.
Whannell, who plays socially maladjusted sex-ed teacher Doug, proves to be the film’s MVP. Doug often appears hysterically calm despite the impending threat of a highly contagious flesh-rending epidemic. Whannell’s stone-faced performance consequently brings Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun to mind, especially during Doug’s messy impromptu dissection of an infected child. Clint and mousy love interest Lucy (Alison Pill) may actively push the plot forward, especially during poky but well-choreographed chase scenes. But Whannell is the Dude-ian rug that tenuously holds Cooties together.
Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Opens September 18, AMC Empire 25
Available on demand