FILM REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNE/For 21st Century Media
Once upon a time, zombie films were a subset of the horror genre. They were invariably scary. After all, who wants to be devoured by a walking cadaver?
However, these days, zombie films take many forms, even the comedic. Such is the case with the new release, “Life After Beth.”
As the film opens, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza from television’s “Parks and Recreation”) is very much alive. The robust young woman is hiking alone through Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The flick segues to her funeral, where it is revealed that she died from a fluke snake bite.
Her boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan, the Green Goblin in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) is consumed with grief. Zach’s own parents (Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines) seem unable to relate to his sense of bereavement.
So, Zach begins to regularly visit Beth’s dad, Maury (John C. Reilly) and mom, Geenie (Molly Shannon) to commiserate with them. He begins to become close with them, particularly Beth’s dad. The two play chess and smoke marijuana together. Zach expresses his sense of guilt that he had routinely rejected the various activities, which Beth suggested that they do together. This included turning down her invitation to join her on the fatal hike. He also confides that shortly before her death, the relationship had become rocky. Beth had suggested that they start seeing other people.
Abruptly, Beth’s parents stop answering the door when Zach stops by. Moreover, they won’t accept his telephone calls any more. Naturally, Zach is hurt and confused by the Slocum’s sudden and inexplicable remoteness.
Eager to resolve this conundrum, Zach returns to the Slocum’s home. Peering through the living room window, he sees Beth. What is going on? He bangs on the door until Maury answers. Of course, Maury insists that Zach is mistaken and vehemently disclaims that Beth is alive.
Zach visits Beth’s gravesite. He sees a big, empty hole there, devoid of any corporeal remains. Apparently, Beth has dug herself out of her subterranean repose. Now revived, Beth has no recollection of ever having died. She also doesn’t recall that she had broken up with Zach and regards herself as still very much in love with him.
Initially, Zach is elated by Beth’s return. However, he learns that Beth’s persona has been transmogrified. Now, she has wild mood swings and is often subject to violent outbursts. Moreover, Beth is now suffused with a ravenous appetite for human flesh. She also consumes the upholstery in Zachary’s car.
It turns out that Beth’s resurrection is not an isolated aberration. A deceased mailman, Zach’s dead grandfather, and various other long-gone characters start showing up. Their behavior is also bizarre.
“Life After Beth” has some laugh out loud moments. When Zach suggests that the Slocum’s recently fired Haitian housekeeper, Pearline (Eva La Dare), might be responsible for making zombies, Maury shoots back dismissively, “Pearline couldn’t even make a bed.” Undaunted, Zach visits her family’s home. She is long gone. When Zach wonders aloud whether Pearline could have been responsible for the sudden increase in zombie sightings, an unspecified family member responds through the screen door with indignation. He challenges whether Zach thinks that all Haitians practice voodoo. It is a well-constructed vignette. It is unfortunate that the film doesn’t have more of them.
“Life After Beth” boasts a committed performance by Plaza. She captures Beth’s myriad mood permutations. Plaza and her co-protagonist, DeHaan, exhibit a nice chemistry together. Paralleling all the zany zombie shenanigans, their characters seem to genuinely care about one another.
Films like “Life After Beth” aren’t necessarily intended to be illuminative or didactic. They don’t always impart any grand message. However, I couldn’t help taking one away from this film. Just because two people love one another, doesn’t mean that they have any chance of a compatible romantic relationship. If you are a human, sustaining a love affair with a zombie is a hopelessly futile aspiration.
“Life After Beth” is intermittently amusing. The lead performances are engaging. Jeff Baena co-wrote the stellar screenplay for “I Heart Huckabee” with director, David O. Russell. Alas, he comes up short here. In his directorial debut, Baena is plagued by his own screenplay. It reflects a poor synergy between its narrative elements and persistently disconcerting tonal shifts. As a result, “Life After Beth” is a marginally entertaining and decidedly uneven film.
**1/2 R (for pervasive language, some horror violence, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use) 90 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.