Life After Beth hosts a medley of actors most directors would only dream of. The soundtrack is stellar. The aesthetic is cool. And the comedy is often quirky and original. But while the movie sets us up to believe we’re in for something totally offbeat and different — a new take on the zombie genre, perhaps a new take on life — in the end Life After Beth is mostly difficult to sink your teeth into.
The movie opens with a shot of Beth, played by the ever-impressive Aubrey Plaza, hiking through the Los Angeles canyons. She’s alone and very much alive. Next thing we know, Beth has died and her boyfriend Zach, played by Dane Dehaan, is plagued with sorrow and regret. Why didn’t he tell her how much he loved her? Why didn’t they hike more? While Zach’s clear eyes and waif-life bone structure could deem him a mere visitor to our home planet, he’s the only character who keeps Life After Beth in some way anchored to reality. He’s both rational and emotional, and he makes decisions we can swallow.
Most of the zom-rom-com’s laughs are owed to comedy veterans Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines, who play Zach’s parents, and John C. Reily and Molly Shannon, who play Beth’s. While the film opens with some chuckles and some great moments of suspense, it mostly feels choppy and unrehearsed. Even for Plaza, who rarely misses a beat, the script sometimes seems to stick in her mouth. So when Shannon breaks into a signature spurt of outrage, or Reiser offers a deadpan shrug, it feels a little like coming home again.
When the credits rolled, I turned to my sister who had been watching with me and we exchanged a look of perplexity. It’s not that neither of us had enjoyed the film, but more that we felt unresolved. What was it even about? That’s really where the film falters. When Zach discovers Beth has dug herself out of her grave, the film starts to be about how two teenagers will rebirth their relationship despite one of them being undead. But it doesn’t dig quite deep enough. Near the end of the film, it becomes a story about a baffling zombie apocalypse that ends as quickly and confusingly as it begins. What happens when your loved ones return from the dead? We know exactly what happens to Zach and his family. But what would happen to our own remains a mystery. The moral of the story is never fully fleshed out.
Life After Beth maintains a sort of hipster nonchalance throughout. So if we’re not crying or laughing hysterically, it’s okay. But in maintaining this kind of detachment, writer-director Jeff Baena himself seems to cower away from making really solid storytelling decisions. The film is Baena’s feature debut. In 2004 he co-wrote I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. A decade later, while Baena proves to have an eye for style and an ear for offbeat comedy, it feels like he’s missing his other half. I can imagine Baena having visions of his film: “What if Beth goes tumbling down the canyon, her body parts disengaging, while smooth jazz plays in the background?” It was a laugh-out-loud moment and Baena’s instincts were correct, but this moment and many more of the film’s quirks sort of skid along, without any weight. Life After Beth is like half a movie. It’s not quite comedy, not quite drama, and, like Beth, it’s not quite there at all. For a film that should be six feet under, it’s just skimming the surface.
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