“Life after Beth” is a frustratingly missed opportunity. With a premise that feels so inspired, this looked to be one of the best black comedies since “Heathers,” but its ideas end up feeling half-baked and watching it gave me the feeling that maybe I have seen one zombie comedy too many. It wants to reach for the comic heights of “Shaun of the Dead,” but despite a game cast, the laughs don’t always come through.
The movie starts with Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) mourning the loss of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), who died from a snake bite while on a hike. This tragic accident occurred after Beth told him that she wanted to end their relationship and see other people, and this makes him feel even worse as he comes to regret not doing all the things Beth wanted to do. He does find some solace with Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), by hanging out with them at their house, but one day he arrives there to find Beth alive and well as if nothing happened. Her parent s have no explanation as to why she’s back from the grave, but they really don’t care because they’re just happy to have their little girl back. While the situation utterly confuses Zach, he seizes the opportunity to have the experiences he’s always wanted to have with her and to take their relationship to the next level.
But soon it becomes apparent that Beth is not the same person she used to be as she starts to go through violent mood swings which causes her to smash Zach’s guitar and burn down a lifeguard station on a beach among other things. Can Zach keep up with Beth’s madness, or is this a sign that maybe their relationship has run its course? Furthermore, with other people coming back from the dead, is this a sign that the apocalypse is coming?
I remember Aubrey Plaza best from her scene stealing roles in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Funny People,” and she has a wonderfully sarcastic sense of humor about her which makes her a perfect choice to play Beth. From start to finish, she proves to be a fearless actress as she makes her character’s transition from normal human being to bloodthirsty zombie unforgettable fascinating to observe, and I kept waiting to see what she was going to do next.
Dane DeHaan had the misfortune of appearing in this summer’s most frustrating blockbuster, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” but he fares a lot better here as the hopelessly in love Zach. He strikes me as someone who is always ready to take on new challenges as an actor, and this is definitely one of them as we have not seen him in a movie like this previously. Not once do you see him try to go for the laughs as he embodies Zach with a sincerity that I imagine all women would love to see from their boyfriends. It’ll be great to see where his career goes from here because he has already proven just how talented an actor he is in movies like this as well as “Chronicle” and “Kill Your Darlings.”
It’s also great to see actors like John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines here as you can always count on them to deliver high energy performances which show they are never lacking for passion in their craft. When it comes to Shannon, I feel like I never see enough of her these days. Look, I’m not asking her to play Mary Catherine Gallagher every day of the week, but to see her radiate her comedic charm on a more regular basis is very much desired by me.
But despite such a talented cast, “Life after Beth” never becomes the laugh riot I was hoping it would be. Overall, the tone here is much too broad and the characters are not fully developed to where we care all that much about what they go through. The opportunity for a number of gut busting laughs keeps getting blown time after time, and the one about smooth jazz music calming zombies only goes so far. I kept waiting for a scene where the characters would break into a music store and get into a fight over who would get the last John Tesh CD, but this movie never gets that specific in detail about its humor.
“Life after Beth” was written and directed by Jeff Baena whose previous work includes being a co-writer on David O. Russell’s “I Heart Huckabees.” Clearly he has a lot of talent, and it says a lot about him that he was able to get such a terrific cast together for this movie. But while he aims to say something important about relationships, the story keeps falling flat when you would expect it to be incredibly inspired. I couldn’t help but hope that it would be one of the funniest movies of the year when I went in to see it, but even Seth McFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West” was a lot funnier in retrospect.
I don’t know, maybe you’ll get a kick out of “Life after Beth,” especially if you’re a fan of the actors starring in it. Watching Plaza here was in some ways worth the price of admission, and I don’t just mean the scene where she’s carrying a kitchen oven that is strapped to her back. I do hope there was a chiropractor on set because I look forward to seeing her give more back breaking performances in the near future.