This Zom-Rom-Com has a clever premise, but is best left buried.
Life After Beth
While zombie movies can be traced back to the 1930s, the modern zombie film era is generally accepted to have begun with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Since then, the zombie movie has been a staple at the cinema and at home, with offerings ranging from the totally ’80s classic Night of the Comet to the biggest box office zombie flick yet, World War Z. Because there are only so many ways to serve up brains, and with TV’s The Walking Dead doing an excellent job of that on a regular basis, filmmakers are taking unique approaches to zombies and treating them as characters, not just mindless threats. Now we have tales of zombie romance such as the latest zombie movie to hit theaters, Life After Beth.
Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) is a devastated teen. His girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), has died, and not long after the couple’s last discussion revolved around ending their relationship. In the days after her funeral, the young man clings to Beth’s memory and spends as much time with her parents as he can. He grows suspicious, however, when the Slocums (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) stop returning his calls. A visit to their house – where they pretend not to be home – reveals the truth behind their sudden secrecy: Beth is alive.
Well, sort of.
Beth is a zombie, only she doesn’t realize it. (Her parents see her as being resurrected.) As she and Zach rekindle their romance, Beth slowly deteriorates in both body and mind.
Life After Beth’s premise tantalizes before the film even fades in. Despite what feels like market saturation, zombies are still all the rage. The film’s plot (my dead girlfriend doesn’t know she’s dead) is a clever one. The leads are talented, good-looking, and popular. The supporting cast is terrific (including Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines as Zach’s parents), with decades of cumulative comedic acting experience among them. This is a film that is aching to succeed.
Unfortunately the film’s concept works better on paper than it does as a movie. Life After Beth‘s fatal flaw is that there is little to the story beyond the clever premise.
Writer/director Jeff Baena spends the first act of the film slogging through a set-up that includes creating a contrived conflict between Zach and Beth’s parents. Time is also wasted establishing Zach’s own parents, with their yelling and their disbelief and their short attention spans, as adults from a bad sitcom. Never does Baena show Beth’s death, her “resurrection,” or her triumphant return home. It’s mentioned, not shown.
The middle of the film is nothing more than a series of sketches, each as unfunny as the one before it, and only made different by Beth’s continued deteriorating physical and mental condition. There is, also, the introduction of a girl from Zach’s childhood, Erica Wexler (Anna Kendrick), inserted (I guess) to offer a future for Zach once Beth goes Full Zombie. It’s an inserted idea yet not well-developed; another great talent wasted.
The third act is perhaps the most baffling aspect of the entire film. I don’t want to spoil anything by revealing details, however the path the story takes seems to occur out of the blue as a device used to help bear the weight of the film’s non-full length structure and is highly frustrating. This third act surprise could have been nicely developed early, and then followed throughout the film as a meaty subplot. Instead, it’s triggered as an escape hatch to bring the film to a preposterous conclusion.
It’s hard to fault anyone in the cast for their work, because no one is given much to work with in the first place. As noted, Reiser and Hines have a sitcom sensibility to them, as does Shannon. Reilly is only slightly elevated because he’s given more relevant dialogue than the rest of the grown-ups. Plaza does fine descending from hapless to mindless. Honestly, there isn’t an MVP performance in the bunch.
Everyone should walk away from this unscathed, but it will be curious to see how DeHaan’s career is affected. In Life After Beth, he’s pale and he broods and stumbles about in a disbelieving haze, none of which is memorable. However, this is his second subpar outing in 2014 (following the terrible The Amazing Spider-Man 2), so 2015 might be pivotal for the young actor. He has a period piece (Tulip Fever) coming out, but more importantly, he is playing James Dean in Anton Corbijn’s Life, a role that might be make-or-break for him.
The zombie genre will (un)live on beyond Life After Beth, a film that feels like a Halloween entry of a Saturday Night Live routine that may have been funny in a short sketch, but can’t survive being stretched out over 90 minutes.