Long-awaited follow-ups to comedies you haven't thought about in a while but you can somehow still quote from memory can easily go awry--usually by trying desperately to recreate all the same jokes from the original (think Anchorman 2). Luckily, Zombieland: Double Tap doesn't fall into that trap; it's a legitimately funny movie with a ton of new ideas. It's just too bad the sequel to the 2009 zombie comedy lacks the worldbuilding and character-focused storytelling of the original, because it could have been much better.
It's been ten years since Zombieland came out, but for the characters--Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), and Wichita (Emma Stone)--it's been slightly less than that, probably. Little Rock is definitely supposed to be either a teenager or a young adult at this point--like many elements of this movie, it's left deliberately vague, allowing the filmmakers to avoid the hard work of establishing things like a timeline, a sense of geography, or characters' motivations.
As the movie begins, our heroes--now having spent at minimum five years together--take up residence in the White House, where they toy around with presidential firearms and slap ripped up sticky notes over Abe Lincoln's portrait to shield themselves from his judgmental gaze. This opening act is basically the best part of the movie--the dynamic between all the characters is more or less what you'll remember from the original, and they mine plenty of comedy from the absurd setting.
It all culminates when Columbus proposes to Wichita (using the Hope Diamond, of course) and she freaks out and bails in the night, with Little Rock--who's grown tired of Tallahassee's helicopter parenting--in tow. Forget about Wichita's entire arc over the course of the first movie, during which she learned to love and trust her newfound family, not to mention the years they've spent together since then.
In any case, out in the world again, Little Rock runs off with Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a lazily defined caricature who you might find funny or puzzling, depending which side of the generation gap you're on (he's part hippie, part millennial, part frat guy--it just doesn't really work). The rest of the gang--reunited, and with Columbus's new fling Madison (Zoey Deutch) in tow--set out to rescue Little Rock from, uh, something. Herself? Whatever.
All of this is essentially setup for what feels like a disconnected series of scenes that may have been at one point meant for the TV show that Zombieland originated as. The gang have a badass zombie fight while attempting to commandeer a luxury RV; they discover Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, in ruins, only to enjoy a happy sojourn at the Elvis-themed "Hound Dog Hotel" just up the road; they have various misadventures on the journey to catch up with Little Rock, many of which could be plucked out and placed anywhere within the movie--or removed entirely--without having much or any effect on the story overall.
It's not that these scenes don't work--in fact, the movie's quite funny up until the third act (more on that later). It's just that they feel disconnected and unimpactful. The original Zombieland had a clarity of purpose: Safeguarded by Columbus's irritating but savvy list of rules, the characters made their way toward the Pacific Playland theme park while learning to trust one another and growing as people. Little Rock's rescue ostensibly provides that purpose this time around, but she doesn't actually need rescuing, and besides, nobody seems to feel any particular urgency about it anyway, given how lackadaisical their journey is.
This whole sequence is a perfect example of both Zombieland Double Tap's greatest strengths, and its most unfortunate failings. Watching Wilson and Harrelson try to out-man one another while Middleditch and Eisenberg compare their endless rules of survival (Flagstaff refers to them as "commandments") is an absolute joy, a sustained gut punch of laughter that lasts as long as the two doppelgangers are onscreen. But that's exactly it: They're gone again almost as soon as they arrive, like another holdover from a serialized version of this story that might have at one point been planned to play out week to week on the small screen. Afterward, the gang simply set out again on Little Rock's trail, and it's more or less like none of it ever happened.
Flagstaff and Albuquerque illustrate another problem, too: Zombieland Double Tap is no longer satirizing the zombie genre, but instead has devolved into a parody of itself. It's not a zombie comedy anymore--it's a comedy first, and a zombie movie distant second. The conventions of the zombie genre are jettisoned entirely, despite Columbus's rules being on a constant loop. Survival is no longer an issue for any of these characters, making the zombies themselves feel less like actual threats and more like petty inconveniences and throwaway gags.
The best new character is undoubtedly Madison, who shouldn't work but somehow does. With her hot pink ensembles and laissez-faire concern for her own survival, Madison shouldn't even be alive--she breaks every single one of Columbus's revered rules, and she's dumb as a rock, to boot (as the other characters point out continuously). However, Madison is saved from being a sexist "dumb blonde" stereotype by two things: First, Zoey Deutch is a delight, imbuing the character with charisma and a mischievous cunning; and second, Madison doesn't only serve as a punching bag for the others, but occasionally sticks up for herself and hits back--just frequently enough for us to not feel too bad laughing at her less brilliant moments.
Madison comes and goes throughout the story--again, making the whole thing feel more like a loosely connected series of episodes than a coherent film. But the movie overall stays more or less enjoyable until the final act, when it all falls apart for a final stand at the hippie commune Babylon, where Little Rock and Berkeley wound up. The plot, character development, and worldbuilding get chewed up like so many delicious Twinkies, and the climax devolves into an extended, CGI heavy zombie fight that, ultimately, just doesn't make a lot of sense.
You'd think the whole point of forming a survivor commune on top of a skyscraper is that it would be easy to defend--so why would they throw open the doors and deliberately lead the zombies to the roof? The answer is to pay off a joke that was begun earlier in the movie, which is exactly the problem, too. Director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick got the comedy right, but this time around, they failed to craft a convincing world around it.