The tedious zombie comedy “The Loneliest Boy in the World” joins a number of recent faux-retro satires that — like “Psycho Goreman” (2020), “Turbo Kid” (2015), and “Kung Fury” (2015) before it — re-present pop culture artifacts from the 1980s as knowingly kitschy comfort food.
In “The Loneliest Boy in the World,” an emotionally disturbed orphan digs up and befriends a quartet of mysteriously re-animated corpses, who then inexplicably act like his surrogate family members. The kid, Oliver (Max Harwood, “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie”), has no friends and no social intelligence, because he’s addicted to TV (ha ha, he likes “Alf”). Oliver also lives alone in a pink house whose interior design seems to have been partly inspired by Barbie’s Dreamhouse playset.
Unfortunately, director Martin Owen (“The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud”) and screenwriter Piers Ashworth (co-writer of “Blithe Spirit”) don’t challenge or really highlight anything funny about Oliver’s delusional, media-poisoned nostalgia. The gags in “The Loneliest Boy in the World” also tend to be so broad and lazy that it’s hard to imagine how this movie’s retro-bait sensibility will appeal to anyone other than the targets of this poisoned-apple crowdpleaser’s toothless criticism.
The joke’s ultimately on you if you want to root for Oliver, a disturbed loner who keeps to himself and marks the dates on his calendar with a mantra of “be normal,” which he writes down repeatedly, because, ha ha, he’s clearly not. Oliver receives counseling and an ultimatum from his social worker Margot (Ashley Benson, “Pretty Little Liars”) and her skeptical colleague Julius (Evan Ross, “Pink Skies Ahead”). In one week’s time, Oliver has to make a friend — a real one — or be sent to a “mental asylum,” as he scribbles on his calendar.
Oliver has until Halloween to make a friend, but his coping skills are nil, so he naturally looks for companionship in the nearby graveyard, where he often visits his recently deceased mother (Carol Anne Watts). In a flashback, we see how mommy died: in the backyard swimming pool, after Oliver accidentally pushes a radio into the water while trying to take a Polaroid photo. Mum’s body goes flying and gets impaled on a garden gnome. Your mileage may vary, but much of “The Loneliest Boy in the World” tends to be this conceptually stillborn and nudge-you-in-your-ribs unfunny.
Oliver’s quest to find a friend leads him to disinter the bodies of four recently buried victims, three of whom died in a plane crash. A couple of unnecessarily drawn-out establishing scenes introduce us to these four characters, none of whom get along with or really know each other prior to coming back from the dead. Still, somehow, because Oliver wants a sitcom-ready nuclear family (and for no other sensible reason, supernatural or otherwise), all four characters come back to life and assume the roles of Oliver’s relatives.
There’s Mitch (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, “The Woman King”), a selfish jock turned protective older brother, and Frank (Ben Miller, “Bridgerton”), a rowdy drunk who assumes the role of Oliver’s fuddy-duddy dad. The women in Oliver’s new family don’t even get that much of a personality or backstory when they respectively transition from their living to their undead personalities: Susanne (Susan Wokoma, “Enola Holmes”), a mildly peeved airplane passenger, randomly transforms into a doting mother, and Mel (Zenobia Williams), the little girl kicking Susanne’s airplane seat, becomes Oliver’s pouting kid sister. There’s also a little zombie dog, whose decomposing body has all of the personality of a polished but unfinished animation proof of concept.
Oliver’s new family helps him to navigate the perils of socializing with people he doesn’t quite understand, like blue-haired misfit Chloe (Tallulah Haddon, “The Last Dudl”) or generic bully Kurt (Jacob Sartorius) and his two equally indistinct cronies, Don (Sam Coleman) and Mark (Mitchell Zhangazha). Mitch gives Oliver advice in the style of a Tips for Teens-style checklist, presented with cheesy voiceover narration, synth cues, animation that recreates VHS tracking and instantly dated cutaway transitions. Susanne also pulls Oliver aside and, based on some good ol’ fashioned maternal intuition, asks him about the girl he’s crushing on, even though she’s never met Chloe.
Oliver inevitably learns to stand up for himself and sweep his girl off her feet at a Halloween party where most of his family members wear Alf masks. No life lessons are learned and very few jokes land, but there are plenty of opportunities for the filmmakers to remind us that they’re smarter than their chintzy material, like when Oliver tries to take a Polaroid of his pre-reanimated corpse family, whom he props up on his pink satin couch. “This doesn’t seem to be working,” Oliver sulks. “Maybe the film’s gone bad?” Har, har, har.
Owen and Ashworth never really find the comedy in Oliver’s particular situation, that living with a family of decomposing strangers sure can be abnormal. Only Miller gets to do anything memorably gross, though he’s never funnier than whatever his goofy character does next, like when he can’t stop vomiting up Susanne’s cooking. That kind of one-note humor’s never taken far enough, so “The Loneliest Boy in the World” mostly bobs along without incident, never challenging viewers’ assumptions nor giving us much to sink our teeth into.
“The Loneliest Boy in the World” opens in U.S. theaters Oct. 14 and on-demand Oct. 18 via Well Go USA Entertainment.