Life After Beth (2014) / Comedy-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, some horror violence, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use
Running Time: 94 min.
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Paul Reiser, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick
Small role: Garry Marshall, Paul Weitz, Alia Shawkat, Jim O'Heir
Director: Jeff Baena
Screenplay: Jeff Baena
Review published August 16, 2014
Perhaps the existence of Warm Bodies deflates the importance of a film like Life After Beth, both romantic comedies which explore the relationship difficulties that emerge when one of the members of the happy couple is a zombie. Not only did Warm Bodies get to the idea first, but it also does it more successfully, at least from a broader appeal standpoint. That's not to say that Life After Beth doesn't emerge as enough of its own thing to garner a recommendation, but it's less likely to win you over from original ideas, and has to do so more through its dark-comedy vibe. It's hit and miss in that area, and it is more cynical about the possibilities of such a union's success, but the performances do elevate.
Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Kill Your Darlings) stars as Zach, who is still in a bit of anguish after his (reluctantly ex-)girlfriend Beth (Plaza, The To Do List) dies in an accident while hiking alone one day. Zach's grief causes him to continue to accept a friendship with Beth's parents, who are also lamenting her loss in their own peculiar ways -- at least until Beth suddenly re-appears from the dead as if just snapping out of a bit of amnesia. "Resurrected," claims Beth's parents; "Zombie," claims Zach, after initially presuming it must be terrible hoax. Beth is similar to how he remembers her, but her 'id' is in overdrive, now far more ravenous about things, and is prone to wild mood swings and violent outbursts. Zach sees this as his second chance to make things right with Beth, but how can he overlook the fact that his girlfriend's body is decomposing, and her appetite for human flesh are growing stronger each day?
Life After Beth is the first directorial attempt from screenwriter Jeff Baena, whose prior film work is limited to a co-scripting credit for David O. Russell's cult comedy, I Heart Huckabees. Baena, who had tried to get this script made into a movie in 2003 (before the current zombie craze), does offer some pretty good ideas, and enough clever moments to keep the film from falling apart, but his film often does come across as the work of someone who isn't very skilled at the filmmaking process. For one thing, the look of the film has that dark and murky texture of low-budget movies made in the 1980s, long before the advent and popularity of HD digital cameras. It's also a bit loose, and has an unpolished workprint-like feel to it that may turn off some viewers.
The two leads are nicely cast (especially Plaza, who really brings her character to life, so to speak), although this is one of those cases where I think lesser known supporting stars might have improved its cult comedy luster, even if it greatly would have decreased its visibility. By going for more mainstream (and older) moviegoers, it is likely to miss finding its young, hip audience (who likely won't laugh seeing Garry Marshall as a zombie), because lovers of darkly comic horror movies will probably get a kick out of this material. Instead, it is marketed as a kind of middle-of-the-road comedy-romance with horror elements, and while it does contain some rom-com and sitcom elements, the increasingly bleak nature of the storyline will probably turn off audiences for that kind of black material.
Even though the film largely plays up absurdity, the surprising aspect about it is that there is an underlying sympathy to Beth that makes it feel like a bit of a tragic romance as she tries valiantly to continue to live a normal life, but must come to grips with the nature of what she has become. The difficulties of moving on with life becomes a main theme for these characters, who are all caught in their own particular ruts they are reluctant to extricate themselves from, including Zach's inability to let Beth go, whether in life, death, or un-death.
For a movie that has a silly one-joke premise, Baena finds quite a bit of interesting commentary about humanity, as well as relationships both personal and familial, that makes this a bit deeper underneath the surface than it might outwardly appear. It's really about overlooking the flaws of the person you love in order to keep loving them, something parents, friends, and romantic partners often find themselves doing all of the time.
Baena has crafted an offbeat film that will have more mainstream audiences scratching their heads at what's supposed to be so funny about seeing a young man try to continue a relationship (including sex) with his dead and decaying girlfriend, but I do feel that the quirky film will likely find a cult audience eventually. In other words, there will be much life after the initial thearical-release death of Life After Beth.
©2014 Vince Leo