Comedy is a subjective enterprise: What people find funny varies wildly, based on whether they’re into slapstick, puns, drollery, impersonations, broad tomfoolery, subtle wit, or some combination thereof. One joke in Amy Heckerling’s Vamps, her conspicuously unheralded reunion with Clueless star Alicia Silverstone, serves as a litmus test. Two happy-go-lucky vampires, played by Silverstone and Krysten Ritter, walk into a Chinese restaurant to find their master, a vicious neck-chomper played by Sigourney Weaver, standing over a dining room full of dead patrons. As Silverstone and Ritter look aghast at the carnage, Weaver explains with a shrug, “You know how it is when you eat Chinese. Half an hour later, you’re hungry again.” And so it goes for a vampire comedy suffused with tart and agreeable Borscht Belt one-liners, like a stealth TV pilot waiting for pickup.
“Don’t take a nap. You’ll be up all day,” one roomie riffs to the other, as Heckerling works through her voluminous vampire-joke book. Silverstone and Ritter live together in a New York City apartment, sleeping side by side in coffins adorned like the inside of a middle-school girl’s locker, with teen idols from their respective pasts. Both are eternally youthful, but Silverstone hails from a centuries-earlier generation while keeping Ritter, more recently turned, in the dark about her actual age. (One of the funnier running jokes has Silverstone struggling to keep up with the lingo and fashions of the times, mixing and matching trends many decades apart.) Both find romantic opportunities: Silverstone reunites with a counterculture type (Richard Lewis) she abandoned in the ’60s, and Ritter falls for a college student (Dan Stevens), the son of Dr. Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn, also a Clueless alum).
Vamps gets caught up in a lot of plotty business about the “stems” who turned Silverstone and Ritter, Dr. Van Helsing’s fanatical pursuit of modern-day vampires, and Weaver’s vicious business, but it’s most comfortable dropping agreeably tacky one-liners. (Silverstone on a new crush: “I haven’t felt this way about anyone since Al Jolson.” Another vampire, on a surprise pregnancy: “I’m over 40. How many chances am I gonna get?”) Heckerling also struggles woefully with special effects, but even then, she’s capable of pulling off a beautiful sequence where Silverstone remembers a specific city block as it’s evolved through the ages. Her shambling little comedy never finds a consistent groove, but it’s eager to please, and has the ancient gags to do it.