Cooties finds a new take on the increasingly dominant zombie genre. The film takes anxiety over the attitudes of a new generation of children and brings it all into the realm of zombie horror. It’s kind of a smart take, though it turns out that the film is about something else entirely. It creates a gang of characters that all fall within recognizable tropes, and from there, the movie does the work of slowly revealing a more subversive streak. Cooties is pretty smart in places, and it can be a fun time when it isn’t being too glib.
Clint (Elijah Wood), an aspiring writer, is on his first day working as a substitute teacher in the elementary school in his hometown of Fort Chicken. He sees himself as the cool teacher, but soon finds that his students aren't really interested in what he's bringing. The day turns for the worse when one of his students suddenly bites another student. And soon enough, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of outbreak happening, turning these children into flesh-eating, virus-spreading monsters.
The film doesn't stray very far from the zombie movie formula. It actually employs the most basic structure: a bunch of survivors with clashing personalities hole up somewhere and must overcome their differences to escape the zombie predicament. The film basically accepts its lack of structural originality and instead focuses on trying to be funny. And in this front, the film is a mixed bag. It probably leans a little too hard on the shock value of adult characters harming children. On the other hand, the film is sometimes clever in its subversion of certain tropes.
A more conventional movie, for example, would try harder to make its characters look heroic. But in this film, the ostensible main character is deeply flawed, and often unable to look past his own faults in order to do the right thing. Though the characters are mainly built on easy stereotypes, the film's acid tones give them a little more flavor. It isn't always good, though. At times, the self-awareness lurches into glibness, and the jokes start to overwhelm.
The movie does get a lot out of its actors. Elijah Wood delivers palpable pleasures in his quest to be unlikable. Rainn Wilson attacks his role with his usual gusto, turning hyper-macho nonsense into a rich vein of comedy. Leigh Whannel, who is also one of the writers of the film, gives himself a plum role with the film's most interesting and most bizarre characters. Thankfully, Whannell doesn't waste the opportunity. Allison Pill, Nasim Pedrad and Jack McBrayer fill out a cast teeming with comedic talent.
Cooties is pretty enjoyable romp, all in all. The sheer amount of funny people in this cast gives it plenty of easy appeal. It feels like it could have done a little more with the story, but there is no denying how clever it gets in delivering character arcs that defy the easy stereotypes that they represent. On the other, there is a glibness of Cooties that can be draining. One’s tolerance for such glibness will determine one’s tolerance for the movie as a whole. But overall, it’s friendly enough that it might be worth the risk.