Life After Beth Movie Review
Written by Ted McCarthy
Released by A24 Films
Written and directed by Jeff Baena
2014, 91 minutes, Rated R
Aubrey Plaza as Beth
Dane DeHaan as Zach
John C. Reilly as Maury
Molly Shannon as Geenie
For those of you not in the know, we’re currently in a severe drought here in Southern California, and are suffering from a very worrisome water shortage. It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that our state government has adopted a criminal penalty for wasting water that can lead to a pretty hefty fine. It might seem a bit drastic, but I’m all for it because I hate seeing valuable resources squandered. I feel similarly when I see a filmmaker that is given valuable elements to make a great film and squanders them, and that’s what happens in Life After Beth.
The story sounds promising enough: Zach (Dane Dehaan) is distraught after the sudden death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza). It seems Beth died from a snake bite while alone on a hike, leaving her parents, Maury and Geenie (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), and Zach’s parents, Noah and Judy (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines), to grieve. A few days later, however, Zach comes around and finds that Beth has inexplicably reappeared, seemingly none the worse for wear and with no memory of the past week. Zach is initially overjoyed (albeit perplexed), and sets out to do and say everything he always wanted to with Beth. Maury and Geenie, however, are more wary, trying to restrict the kids’ dates to staying inside the house or only venturing out late at night. The fun reunion is short-lived when Beth starts to behave erratically and violently, and Zach and his family start to notice more and more people returning from the dead and attempting to resume their lives – despite being in various stages of rot and decay.
The biggest and most damning problem with the movie is that it just isn’t very funny. This almost seems like an impossibility given the comic heavies that Jeff Baena (writer of David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, which was a similarly star-studded comedy that wasn’t nearly as funny as it thought it was) had to work with. Aubrey Plaza is one of the more beloved and recognizable young comedic actresses working today, known mostly for her role on Parks and Recreation, but who has been great in movies like Funny People and Safety Not Guaranteed. Admittedly I think she does her best, but her continued outbursts of zombie behavior become grating very quickly. She’s much better in the moments when she’s simply aloof and oblivious to the fact that she’s slowly rotting away (her continued deterioration reminded me of Griffin Dunne’s sporadic appearances throughout An American Werewolf in London – THAT was funny).
While Plaza anchors the cast, she’s surrounded by veteran talent like John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Boogie Nights), SNL alum Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, and Paul freaking Reiser! And yet none of them, save for Reilly in a few scenes, contribute a single entertaining line or moment throughout the film. DeHaan is bland as the boyfriend, but the award for most annoying character I’ve seen all year goes to Matthew Gray Gubler as Zach’s security guard brother who fancies himself as a law enforcement action hero. I got that he’s supposed to play a douchebag, kind of like Bill Paxton’s Chet in Weird Science (I know that’s kind of an obscure pull for a horror review, but that’s just where my head went), but he’s face-in-my-hands awful.
The worst offense by far, though, is having the adorable and talented Anna Kendrick show up as a ditsy, “OMG!” friend of Zach’s, whose only purpose is to set up another jealous zombie-Beth destruction gag. The girl is an Oscar nominee! I can’t even begin to imagine whom Kendrick owed a favor to in order to show up in this. I haven’t felt this bad for an actress since the doggystyle beheading scene in A Serbian Film.
The ace in the hole that you have in a “quirky love in the time of zombies” tale (notice I didn’t use the wretched label “zom-rom-com”) is that, even if the human elements fall flat, you can at least fall back on some old-fashioned zombie violence and gore to make things more palatable. But even that is missing here, and save for one kill at the end, most of the violence is pretty much PG-13 level. Simply put, this kind of cross-genre film has been done much better before. Zombieland mixed the laughs and gore well, and Warm Bodies (that too was more of a PG-13 love story, I know) was surprisingly decent and sweet. For my money, though, no movie is going to top Shaun of the Dead as a zombie comedy. Period.
The film isn’t completely devoid of amusing moments that caused a smile or two, and just the sheer presence of so many likeable performers keeps it from being a complete dud. But unfortunately it’s a one-joke comedy, and a pretty stale joke at that.