This weekend introduces a zombie tale a little more un-dead. Where there is no shortage of artistic,scientific and even political expression within the undead department, from films to books to TV series to detailed survival guides and manifestos, zom-rom-com Life After Beth carves out a new subcommittee where zombies have feelings, too.
Life After Beth is a story of life and love lost and found, starring Aubrey Plaza and Dane DeHaan in a more cellular interpretation of star-crossed lovers. DeHaan plays Zach Orfman, a young man beside himself with grief after the death of his, girlfriend Beth Slocum (Plaza), and for whom her parents (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly) are his only sources of comfort. Not long after her funeral, he starts to notice some unusual occurrences around town—strange things are afoot at the Circle-K—and Zach discovers that Beth has risen from the grave. His initial reservations about her resurrection are quickly subdued by his tunnel vision of love. But soon he finds she’s not the same as when she left.
Beth supplies a first for director-writer Jeff Baena. Baena, who co-wrote with David O. Russell the criminally overlooked I Heart Huckabees, wrote Beth almost 11 years ago, and the project that ultimately came to be his directorial debut had been all but shelved.
“It feels like a kid that you gave birth to and you got to see grow up until about one, and then they went into a coma and were in a coma ward for about 10 years, and then miraculously they woke up,” Baena told The New York Times.
Though it’s clear that projects of zombies past played at least a small role in forming the product of Baena’s vision, including a scene straight from The Walking Dead playbook where Zach wheels a shopping cart down the aisles of an abandoned grocery store, the world of Beth is pretty original. The first half almost feels like a rock opera, and sustains a balance of dark, brooding dejection while staying genuinely interested with a childlike discovery, bordering on optimism.
Though the horror-comedy is funny in its own right, the true comedic hero is Matthew Gray Gubler as Kyle Orfman, the military mighty mouse and Zach’s older brother. The Criminal Minds regular has talent. Many comedians labor their whole lives to extract their own brand of funny, but sometimes people like Grubler come around, people who don’t need a templated version of funny to be hilarious. With the warm approachability we saw in his role as Joshua Gordon-Levitt’s trusted adviser in 500 Days of Summer, he presents an “Eagle-Scout nerd” type that evokes a “laugh with” rather than “laugh at” response from the audience. The effort is appreciably less heavy-handed than, say, a Napoleon Dynamite figure. Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Anna Kendrick also bring their own personal touches of comedic frolic, always welcome.
Life After Beth has game-changing potential for Aubrey Plaza. The Delaware native is no stranger to the big screen—she put in solid appearances for 2012’s critically acclaimed Safety Not Guaranteed and Edgar Wright’s cult-ish favorite Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (also with Kendrick!), the former winning her an ALMA award. But she is best known for her role as April Ludgate, sarcastic tart of the front desk on sitcom royalty Parks and Recreation. So though she’s less up-and-coming as she is came-and-staying, her performance in Beth should allay any doubts about Plaza’s range. Watching her move from her classic deadpan to channeling the deranged histrionics of a hormonal zombie is alone worth the ticket price—she’s frightening, she’s repulsive, but we empathize with her and hope this unfortunate situation will somehow work itself out. She’s a manic flesh-eating asshole, but she’s our flesh-eating asshole. Granted, shooting a feature on a tight schedule is a breeding ground for vacillating temperaments, and when you factor in the potential emotional implications of working with a director who is also your boyfriend, maybe Plaza’s efforts were also a coping mechanism. But whatever the means, mission accomplished.
Though he not far along in his career, DeHaan has already shown his role versatility and volatility—he embodied a disturbed recluse with new-money superpowers in 2012’s Chronicle, a lost soul searching for answers about his dead father in Place Beyond the Pines and managed to offer one of the few redeeming qualities in an otherwise uninspired attempt at capturing the birth of the Beat Poet movement as the sexually charged and beautifully masochistic muse, Lucien Carr, in last year’s Kill Your Darlings. A mourning, moaning boyfriend in black skinnies might walk lines more conventional than his other more decadent adaptations, especially next to Plaza’s spotlight thievery, but dishevelment looks just as good on an understated DeHaan, and once you forgive their at-times clunky chemistry, the arrangement works.
Life After Beth forgets the mutual exclusivity of standard zombie-vs.-human protocol and explores a premise of attempted coexistence in a love-story framework. This isn’t the first time Baena has shown philosophical interest in creating symbiotic relationships with opposing forces onscreen—it’s a theme Huckabees also grapples with, showing how disagreement, contradiction and paradox support human universality rather than hinder it.
Beth, too, delves into philosophical opposites, though with decidedly less existential angst. It’s not overly ambitious, it knows where it’s going from start to finish and stays sure of its goals, though not always entirely confident in its own executions. At times, it falls victim to It’s Always Sunny syndrome—loudly repeating a joke over and over in hopes it’s still as funny as its first delivery. Yes, that smooth jazz is the music of choice for zombies is hilarious, but we’re hit over the head every chance there is. Some of the elbow-jabs are a bit strong—Chekhov’s gun literally appears again in the third act—and there are a few relationship arcs that feel somewhat arrested. (Though it’s possible some of that can be attributed to the 22-day shoot crunch.)
That a film so original can feel so familiar—safe, even—will be a plus for some and and a minus for others. But it’s a fun romp, and what it lacks in focus it makes up with integrity. They’re happy to be here, undead or alive.
Director: Jeff Baena
Writer: Jeff Baena
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Matthew Gray Gubler
Release Date: Aug. 15, 2014