LIFE AFTER BETH
DIRECTED BY Jeff Baena
STARS Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan
Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in Life After Beth (Photo: A24)
There's one clever idea in Life After Beth, and it's the suggestion that zombies really dig smooth jazz. When it comes to movies taking pot shots at that maligned musical genre, this concept is almost as funny as the moment in Wayne's World 2 when Garth (Dana Carvey), hearing the name Kenny G, imagines himself having his teeth drilled by a dentist while sitting in attendance at one of his concerts.
Otherwise, when it comes to the overstuffed annals of undead cinema from A (Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies) to Z (Zombies on Broadway), this anemic effort rests near the bottom of the heap. It begins with the death of Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), felled by a poisonous snake bite while hiking through the woods. Her boyfriend Zach Orfman (UNC School of the Arts grad Dane DeHaan) is understandably devastated by the loss, and he starts spending more time with Beth's parents, Maury and Geenie (Year of the Dog co-stars John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), than with his own folks (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines, both wasted) and easily agitated brother (Matthew Gray Gubler). Imagine Zach's surprise, then, when he spots Beth lurking around the Slocum household; at first convinced that her death was a sick prank, he soon believes her parents when they tell him that she somehow came back from the dead. Geenie thinks it's a holy resurrection while Zach figures she's a zombie; at any rate, because she's acting normally, with no memory of her death, Maury makes Zach promise not to tell her what really happened. That grows increasingly more difficult, not only because the Slocums don't want their daughter ever leaving the house but also because her behavior grows more erratic — and violent — by the day.
Jeff Baena makes both his directing and solo screenwriting debuts here (he previously co-wrote I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell), but while he may have come up with an interesting seed of an idea, he has no idea how to bring it to full fruition. The picture is badly paced and, for a comedy, pretty devoid of laughs, but its primary problem is that its title character never comes across as anything more than a plot device. The movie would have been more interesting had it followed Beth and how she coped with her unique situation, but she only turns up sporadically to act sweet and, later, turn psychotic. Instead, the focus is squarely on Zach and the poor boy's plight in dealing with a girlfriend who's not all there in too many ways to count. This askew viewpoint is even accentuated by the second-act introduction of Erica (Anna Kendrick), a nice girl who's only shoehorned into the plot so we can all rest assured that Zach will have a new relationship waiting once he lays his current one to rest (pun fully intended). If there's any subtext to be found in this, it's not particularly pleasant.
Those interested in a worthwhile romantic comedy featuring zombies — zom-rom-com is the terminology, I believe — are advised to check out last year's Warm Bodies. It's far more satisfying than Life After Beth, which is strictly DOA.