Written and directed by Jeff Baena
Twenty years ago, if someone said that ‘zombie romantic comedy’ was going to become an actual cinematic sub-genre, they’d have been called a witch and burned at the stake. And yet, they would have been right, and Fantasia 2014 has seen the unveiling of yet another film in the rapidly expanding genre, Life After Beth. Starring Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation and Dane DeHaan, recently of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Life After Beth is best described as a zombie breakup comedy. It’s also best described as “decent, but not amazing”, a serviceable enough zom-rom-com kept afloat mostly by the supporting cast.
DeHaan stars as Zach, a teenager whose longtime girlfriend, Beth (Plaza), dies and comes back to life several days later. But before Zach’s eyes, as well as Beth’s parents played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon, Beth slowly turns from bubbly 21-year old to flesh-eating fiend, and more dearly departed relatives begin to re-appear and create havoc.
Life After Beth has a solid premise, if one is willing to swim so far into the absurd that they lose sight of shore, but the main problem is that once the premise has been firmly established, Baena’s screenplay seems unsure of where to go next. Scenes drag on far too long, often with the actors stammering lines at each other that sound semi-improvised, which frequently gives the sense that the film is stalling for time. New elements are thrown into the mix seemingly at random, like the calming effects of smooth jazz on Beth and the other members of the undead horde, leading to the feeling that the writer made the critical error of mistaking ”random’ for ‘funny’. While it could be said that this gives Life After Beth the kind of spur of the moment, “anything can happen” feeling of, say, Airplane! or a Mel Brooks film, more often than not it gives a feeling that writer-director Jeff Baena was unsure of what to do with his own premise.
None of this makes the film bad, merely uneven. Though the leads both have excellent-to-middling comedic timing, the most laughs come from the supporting cast. Matthew Gray Gubler steals the show as Zach’s brother, bringing scenes that would have been comedy wastelands enough punch to keep the audience laughing. Veteran John C. Reilly similarly picks up the slack as Beth’s father, shining especially brightly in early scenes opposite DeHaan.
And yet, as good as the supporting players are, and indeed the leads part of the time as well, the sense that Life After Beth would have worked better as a short film can’t be shaken. The script often feels as though it has been through several hasty rewrites, as characters disappear and the cast struggles to pull every last minute out of each scene. Surprise additions like the appearance of Anna Kendick similarly feel dragged out. All of which isn’t to say that Life After Beth doesn’t have genuinely funny moments, but they feel depressingly few and far between. The effort is clearly there, but it sadly isn’t enough to make Life After Beth truly great.
— Thomas O’Connor