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LIFE AFTER BETH – Review
September 29, 2014
The most recent cinematic example of zombie-human love that comes to mind is last year’s Warm Bodies where a zombie teen boy falls for a girl who lives amongst the survivors of an already fully-fledged zombie apocalypse. In Life After Beth the roles are reversed and there’s no clear sign of a zombie pandemic until the third act of the film. That shouldn’t be an issue per se but it feels like the tonal rollercoaster the story offers to the viewer up until that point isn’t always the best build up for what’s to come. As a “zom-rom-com”, Life After Beth has good ideas and good intentions but its inconsistent tone produces a film that, pardon the bad pun, doesn’t bite as hard as it should.
Still there’s plenty to enjoy in this wacky indie feature debut from screenwriter Jeff Baena who co-wrote David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) and if you’ve seen that film you can easily have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into with Life After Beth. Baena’s eccentric humour is in fact the trademark of his opera prima as a director and that works both to the film’s advantage and detriment. When his zany dialogue and situations work well there’s plenty to be amused by but when they fall flat you’re left with the awkward feeling of a joke still waiting for the punch line.
Life After Beth is the story of Zach (Dane DeHaan) whose girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snake’s bite while on a lonely hike in the woods. Zach is devastated even more so as he reveals to Beth’s parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon) how his relationship with their late daughter had hit a huge bump in the road and she’d recently told him they should try to see other people.
He’s remorseful for not having tried his best with her and do more of the things Beth used to like such as hiking. In this grieving phase he starts hanging out more and more with Beth’s parents, also in an attempt to escape from his own family. His folks (played by Paul Riser and Cheryl Hines) are in fact borderline overbearing and his older brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), a security officer in the suburban community they live in, is a plain weirdo whose favorite sport is relentlessly teasing Zach.
When Beth’s parents suddenly start avoiding him, a perplexed Zach cruises over to their place and though they don’t answer the door and pretend to not be home, the confused boy tries to sneak inside from the back only to see something jaw-dropping: Beth is there. Even if his brother dismisses Zach as delirious and drags him away while on duty to stop him from harassing Beth’s family, Zach eventually succeeds at breaking in at night.
As he realizes he was right, at first he flips out, thinking he’s victim of a huge hoax put into place by Beth who wanted to break up with him but in the end he must accept the truth: one night Beth simply showed up back at her house and her parents don’t care how or why. They call it a resurrection and beg Zach to keep it a secret not just from other people but also from Beth since she can’t remember a thing and they fear that learning the truth might damage her.
This means the only way Zach can hang out with Beth is at her home but after several “dates” stuck in the attic (where Beth seems to prefer dwelling) those walls become too restrictive and Zach sneaks Beth out for a drive which ends up with an awkwardly funny love-making scene in a children’s park.
Beth reveals a voracious sexual appetite and Zach jokes around about whether she wants to “eat” him. Yet the fun is bound to end soon as Beth not only starts showing signs of majorly gross scabbing on her skin but more importantly outbursts of violence that turn a night date at the beach into sudden mayhem with a life-guard tower catching on fire.
From there onwards things spiral out of control and Zach begins to understand that his longing for a second chance with Beth has clouded his perception of reality. As other people in town also start showing signs of weird behavior, it becomes clear that Beth isn’t the only one of her kind and that shit might be on the verge of hitting the fan.
However that’s where the film starts crumbling since those signs are sparse and vague and the switch to zombie-apocalypse mode seems too abrupt and even more so its resolution feels too rushed and easy. I think I would’ve rather seen a scenario a la Zombieland right from the start or even better a story where Beth is the only one of her kind given how the film plays out like that for the most part.
Despite these issues along the way, Life After Beth is a solid directorial debut that wittily reflects on the hardships of letting go. Rising stars Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Kill Your Darlings) and Aubrey Plaza (Scott Pilgrim, Safety Not Guaranteed, TV’s Parks And Recreation) lead the cast with great chemistry.
DeHaan is masterful at portraying tormented characters and here he subtly blends in his effective yet understated comic skills. Plaza has reached fame with the offbeat cranky humour of her Parks And Recreation character hence she couldn’t be more perfect playing a voracious zombie who’s clueless about her new self. Not every narrative device always works smoothly but the talented actors make the most of the darkly humourous over the top moments and manage to deliver a flawed but overall fun ride.
Life After Beth is out in UK cinemas on October 1st
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor