Confession: I was on leave when "Shaun of the Dead" opened in 2004. It left theaters before I got back to work. But this week I had a great excuse to steal a couple of hours for the DVD when I read Peter Jackson's blurb -- "The Most Entertaining Film I Have Seen All Year" -- and saw that Martin Freeman, Jackson's choice for Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit," was listed in the credits. Would "Shaun of the Dead" convince me that Freeman was the man for "The Hobbit?" Not really. He's only in one very funny bit -- a replay of the classic "Seinfeld" gag in which Jerry's quirky crew runs into a gang that's like its Bizarro spittin' image.
But I was delighted to see the film, which plays at the AFI Silver tonight and tomorrow at midnight. It's hilarious. Director Edgar Wright and his cowriter and star, Simon Pegg, pull off the trick of turning slob comedy into high comedy. Under-achieving appliance salesman Pegg and his slacker roommate, Nick Frost, prove to have the right temperament to survive in a London overrun by zombies -- or in Frost's case, survive with an asterisk. And Wright has that rarest of qualities, a visual sense of humor. He draws parallels between humdrum human routines and zombiedom without smashing you over the head -- even when his characters are smashing zombies over the head. (By the way, Freeman's scene comes right after the shot above; that's Nick Frost, Penelope Wilton, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Kate Ashfield and Simon Pegg, left to right.)
What does convince me that Freeman is a great choice for Bilbo is his smashing performance as Dr. John Watson in the contemporary Sherlock Holmes series that premiered on PBS this week. In a smart, irreverent updating of Arthur Conan Doyle's characters, Freeman creates an intelligent, sometimes puckish and often questioning foil to Benedict Cumberbatch's brilliant, cheeky, show-off Great Detective. Freeman also persuasively embodies Watson's own appetite for risk-taking. Thanks to Cumberbatch and Freeman, you believe Holmes and Watson are friends in this version, not just a high-toned vaudeville act.
As Bela Lugosi said in "Renegades," "What do you think?"