Review: Life After Beth
PLOT: Days after dying via snakebite, Beth Slocum returns from the grave and tries to resume her relationship with her boyfriend, Zach, who is delighted at first, but increasingly worried by her strange, even deadly behavior.
REVIEW: At this point, there's very little you can do to bring fresh life to the zombie sub-genre. Even more so the romantic zombie comedy sub-sub-genre, which as we all know hit its peak with SHAUN OF THE DEAD ten years ago, making all other contenders look like pretenders. But there's still something to be said about a movie that does its darndest to carve out its own niche within the familiar world of the humorous undead, and LIFE AFTER BETH deserves credit for the energy and heart it brings to the table. It will never be considered a classic, may not even achieve cult classic status, but it endears itself to us with consistently weird ideas and a cast up to the task of selling said weirdness.
You also can't claim writer-director Jeff Baena wastes any time getting to his central premise, and at approx. 91 minutes, LIFE AFTER BETH is a swift ride. And it's a rather simple tale, really: Days after the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza), Zach (Dane DeHaan) is in the earliest, most paralyzing stages of grief. He finds little comfort with his clueless parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines), instead seeking warmth from Beth's far more understanding folks (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon, both perfect). The fact that Beth was on the verge of breaking up with him makes her untimely passing - via snakebite! - all the more painful, and the Baena displays real skill for achieving a mournful, yet not depressing, tone.
The tone picks up a bit when something very odd indeed occurs. After Beth's parents begin dodging his phone calls and visits, Zach susses out the reason for their sudden standoffishness: They're hiding Beth in their house. Beth is alive, apparently, with no memory of what happened. It's a miracle, proclaims the parents, while Zach more astutely knows there's another word for Beth's condition: zombie! But why let that get in the way of the rekindled love affair? (Beth also doesn't remember their relationship troubles before her demise.) And while Beth's newfound passion is great for a while, the other qualities of being a zombie soon begin to emerge in unfortunate ways: a penchant for breaking out in gross rashes and sores, an insatiable hunger for all the wrong things, a propensity for being confused and forgetful, and so on. Baena even intriguingly adds a new wrinkle to the zombie genre here: Beth has super strength. First time I think I've seen that from a shambling corpse, but it makes for a handful of entertaining sight gags.
Baena gets a lot of mileage from his rather thin premise from his terrific cast, led by Plaza and DeHaan. Plaza sinks her teeth into the role (pardon the pun) with gusto, and the further into zombie dementia Beth sinks, the more impressive Plaza's frothing, crazed performance. I also quite liked DeHaan, who here finally shows he's more than just an emo bummer: his turn as Zach is funny, likable and sympathetic, and although Zach certainly does more than a few questionable things, one can't help but root for him to navigate the increasingly freaky scenario. Anna Kendrick shows up as a friend of Zach's who earns Beth's ire, and seeing how she's Anna Kendrick, she brings a healthy - and welcome - amount of adorability to the proceedings. And, as always, John C. Reilly is a pure delight whenever he's on screen; his character is completely frustrating, but Reilly's sweet, desperate dad is simply too engaging to deny.
This is Baena's directorial debut, admirable overall, but not without bumps in the road. There's a subplot that grows slowly but steadily in the second half of the film - let's just say Beth isn't the only one with her unique condition - that while amusing doesn't fulfill its potential. The third act brings about light-hearted zombie chaos that feels like it has been added to bring some action to the finale, but it ultimately comes off as an afterthought. And the very end is a bit of a mess, as well; the final moments feel a happy ending is being forced instead of gained naturally, and LIFE AFTER BETH leaves on a fairly unconvincing note.
That said, LIFE AFTER BETH can be still be considered a more than acceptable addition to the zom-rom-com sub-genre, thanks to a strong cast that really gives it life.
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