Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Life After Beth attempts to breath life into the zombie genre but falls flat due to an inconsistent tone and sporadically affecting humor. The film often feels like a piece of sketch comedy that doesn’t have much substance past its initially amusing premise: a young man’s recently deceased girlfriend is mysteriously brought back from the dead, and she doesn’t seem like the same person. It’s admittedly compelling, but the film never takes advantage of providing commentary on the state of mourning or reflecting upon the nature of zombie storytelling. Instead, the story relies on being amusing and occasionally funny rather than delivering a full-fledged story. The performances are committed and engaging, particularly those by Aubrey Plaza and John C. Reilly, but too many open ends and strange musings leave the film feeling empty and lifeless like its title character.
The story centers on Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan), a teenager that at the start of the film is seen mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza). Zach is close to Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), and he connects with their feeling of loss and hopelessness. They all wish they could have told Beth things before she died, and not have had their last conversation be so bad, but that’s always how mourners will feel after the loss of a loved one. Zach is depressed, his brother treats him terribly, and he needs to find a way to get past Beth. Then, one day when over at the Slocums’ house, he sees his ex-girlfriend through the window walking down the hallways. It can’t be. She’s dead. He saw the body buried, so he visits the graveyard and finds a hole right in front of her tombstone that points to her rising from the dead. Sure enough, after nagging the Slocums to let him see what’s happening, Beth comes back into Zach’s life and seems good as new.
Of course everything is not what it seems. Jeff Baena is a first-time director here, having previously co-written I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. He has a knack for deriving comedy out of the characters themselves rather than the actions, which lends itself well to an offbeat zombie comedy. The first half hour is ripe for material to come from a strange father-in-law figure and an aggressively personal brother, but the story can only carry that momentum so far. Most of the film’s second act uses suspense as a means of driving narrative; there’s no surprise in the fact that Beth is a zombie because, obviously, she rose from the dead and we know that a snakebite killed her. Now if the story meanders and the comedy remains, that would mean something else entirely. But much of the middle is defined by Zach falling back in love with Beth and falling right back out of it as she goes crazy and wants to eat his brains.
There’s commitment to the premise itself and from the actors, which keeps the film from being a bore. Plaza is solid in providing her character with an emotional tie, allowing the heart to shine through her strong desire for consuming human flesh. DeHaan is serviceable in the lead but doesn’t do much with the material due to his character being a thin protagonist. Reilly and Shannon are both terrific comedy actors who propel themselves wonderfully toward the absurdity of the concept. Yet despite all of this energy from the actors, they can’t make the material less trite or commonplace than it is. The story attempts to infuse heart into the final ten minutes but feels strangely distanced and off-putting. The lack of explanation for the dead rising, as they increasingly do throughout the film, leaves the audience with a supernatural take that never meshes with the narrative. Life After Beth is tonally odd and poorly executed, a solid idea stretched out far too much for comfort.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)