Life After Beth (2014)
Some girls just want to watch the world burn.
Written by I Heart Huckabees (2004) co-writer Jeff Baena back in 2003, Life After Beth attempts to breathe new energy into the exhausted zombie subgenre. What feels like the premise for a short Funny or Die skit has been stretched into a feature length film with Life After Beth, Baena’s nonsensical directorial debut, which stars his real-life girlfriend Aubrey Plaza, famous for NBC’s acclaimed sitcom Parks and Recreation (2006), as the undead titular character, Beth. Why Baena has decided to unearth this script after a decade or so of dormancy remains unknown — perhaps he’s trying to cash in on the contemporary film, television and comic book zombie craze — as this mayhem-in-suburbia take on the undead feels somewhat unwarranted. Stumbling more often than it strides, it’s evident that Life After Beth is at least a genuine attempt at creating a fresh romantic zom-com.
The film’s plot is simple enough; it focuses on the life of several characters after the death of a significant figure in their lives, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), hence the picture’s pun on the general term ‘life after death.’ Following his girlfriend, Beth’s, sudden passing — resulting from a poisonous snake bite while hiking — Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) begins to spend a bit of time with her parents, Maury Slocum — a scene stealing John C. Reilly — and Geenie Slocum (Molly Shannon), as a source of comfort. One day, Beth’s parents begin to ignore him — they stop answering the doorbell and block his phone calls, which upsets and confuses the grieving Zach — who is still clinging onto Beth’s rainbow winter scarf, although it’s the middle of summer. Later, while peering through the window, Zach makes a startling discovery and spots Beth roaming around the Slocum family home. He eventually learns that Beth has somehow returned from the dead — which her parents believe to be some sort of Biblical resurrection — by means of digging out of her own grave.
What’s more, the revived Beth has no recollection of the last few weeks of her life, unable to remember her rocky patch or break-up with Zach. While confused, Zach is not willing to refuse this second chance with Beth and takes advantage of her obvious amnesia — she wears the same black and white, polka-dotted dress daily and believes to have a significant school ‘test’ on the following day — and the pair get along like a house-on-fire, well for a short time at least. Although Zach initially attempts to make up for his previous mistakes with Beth — he endeavors to keep the relationship alive this second time round, no matter the costs — he eventually finds himself in similar murky territory the deeper he gets involved with his reawakened girlfriend. When Zach eventually tells Beth the truth about her rebirth — against her persistent father’s wishes — things take a turn for the worse as other residence begin to rise from their graves, much like zombies, whist Beth starts to decay and become sour.
On the whole, Life After Beth is a bit of a mixed bag, as the film succeeds on some occasions but misses the mark on others. Set in the middle of summer, the picture has a peculiar unsoiled suburban aesthetic and is wonderfully shot by cinematographer Jay Hunter, Much Ado About Nothing (2012), whilst the pounding score truly enhances the mood of the overall feature. Similarly, writer-director Baena creates some genuinely amusing ‘zombie’ moments, particularly with their apparent love for smooth jazz and obsession with the attic, verifying his honest stab at trying to create something different.
The deliriously deadpan Aubrey Plaza does a credible job of breathing life into the undead Beth — her monotone voice and bored eyes really enhance her role — and Plaza does all the mumbling, groaning and gnarling she can possibly muster, although she still feels better suited as a support player. Dane DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro (2014), sulks his way through the picture’s first half, but becomes more tolerable once he is reacquainted with his departed lover, Beth, and exposes some of his comic flair. John C. Reilly, Step Brothers (2008), is the real cast standout — even if slightly underwritten — and provides the flick’s heartiest laughs as he attempts to protect his revitalized daughter, from the hash truth about her unexplained return.
Similarly, Matthew Gray Gubler, Criminal Minds (2005), is particularly animated and nails his role as Zach’s up-tight military obsessed brother, Kyle Orfman, generating his own unique kind-of-humor within the role, chiefly when his undead grandfather and pervious home-owners show up at the Orfman family residency. The lovely Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect (2012), pops in at precisely the right moment as Erica Wexler — a childhood friend from Zach’s past — providing a great nice-girl versus uncontrollable-girl moment, and offers some fun playful interaction between the now anxious Zach. Cheryl Hines, RV: Runaway Vacation (2006), and Paul Reiser, Aliens (1986), are also wonderfully cast as Zach’s parents Judy Orfman and Noah Orfman, but are only given a few moments to shine when the impending zombie apocalypse becomes more wide spread.
Although Life After Beth is just as philosophically intuitive as one might expect, the film loses its footing when compared to last year’s Warm Bodies (2013) — which this flick shares obvious comparisons with — as it lacks an overall sense of purpose. It’s apparent that director Baena is attempting to deconstruct the fundamental elements that make up a human relationship with Life After Beth being a romance set within a heightened scenario; however, the chemistry between the film’s leads is somewhat absent and the pair’s on-screen affair borderlines on misogyny. Seeing as we, the audience, are never actually shown the true dynamic between the couple when Beth was very much alive, Aubrey Plaza’s character comes off as rather generic, with little personality and is, as a result, unable to convey any real emotions. It’s only when DeHaan shares the screen with Kendrick, that we see an honest interaction between the film’s young characters and perhaps the beginning of a forthcoming friendship.
Where other zom-coms, such as Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Warm Bodies (2013) succeed at satisfying both their target demographics — those drawn in by the flick’s romance element and those eager to see blood and guts — Life After Beth is horror deficient as the action is portrayed through Zach’s point-of-view and the zombie apocalypse is only visible in the background, where the undead folk are seldom seen. Violence is pretty much always off-screen with most kills implied rather than shown, resulting with the mellowest zombie picture in recent memory; nevertheless, the film’s limited effects created by Autonomous F/X, Inc., I Spit on Your Grave (2010) are largely well done.
Alas, Life After Beth still registers as ‘overkill’ in the zom-com department as the project is simply a stretched-out, sketch worthy concept; we’ve all seen this type of picture done several times before, and probably better executed. With a crew of formidable talents such as Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon to reinforce the film’s comedy element, and a fervent filmmaker’s passion, Life After Beth possesses firm commercial appeal, despite the fact that there’s not much ‘life’ in a picture titled Life After Beth.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Life After Beth is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia