Review: 'Life After Beth' squanders a great premise by not taking it seriously

Dane DeHaan plays a young man who won't let go of his ex-girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza), even after she turns into a zombie, in the unfocused "Life After Beth."

Aubrey Plaza becomes a zombie in "Life After Beth." Credit: A24 Aubrey Plaza becomes a zombie in "Life After Beth."
Credit: A24

 

‘Life After Beth’
Director: Jeff Baena
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

 

“Life After Beth” is a zom-rom-com, but it’s not the comedy part that stands out. It’s the romantic part. Dane DeHaan plays young Zach, whose titular girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) has died from a snakebite. Then she comes back. As in “Night of the Living Dead,” there’s no explanation for why, but it’s clear she’s undead: she’s decaying, she’s stronger, she’s prone to genuinely violent mood swings and she’s on the brink of hungering for human flesh. But Zach can’t let her go and refuses to acknowledge her inevitable mutation into a monster, because that would mean succumbing to grief.

 

There’s a really dark, profound and even much funnier film to be made from this set-up. It’s not that “Life After Beth” ignores this idea: Beth’s parents (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly) are also adamant about keeping their zombie daughter around. But it keeps forgetting about it. It keeps forgetting about everything. This is the directorial debut of “I Heart Huckabees” screenwriter Jeff Baena (who’s also Plaza’s real-life boyfriend), but his script is profoundly unfocused, raising interesting ideas and then failing to build on them. It’s a film three or four (or five or six) more drafts away from being filmable.

 

Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza are seen in happier times. Credit: A24 Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza are seen in happier times.
Credit: A24

A lack of discipline isn’t its only problem. It tries to play things too cool. It’s more afraid of emotions than its lead character is of losing Beth. Plaza’s previous vehicle, last summer’s “The To Do List,” also pretended to be above the material, as though withering sarcasm would save the day. All it did was make one wonder why the film didn’t try harder. Plaza is actually quite committed here: She throws herself into her character’s increasingly animalistic behavior, and doesn’t seem remotely fazed about getting dirty and decayed.

Then again, she's still too cool for school. She never suggests who Beth was before un-death; she's just goofing around. Baena cares even less.He does occasionally. Reilly and Shannon are allowed to be funny but also sincere, and they know how to find laughs in real pain. But the rest of the film is happily half-assed, whether it’s sloppily laying out its own zombie mythology or flailing about, trying to do something, anything with the premise. This didn’t have to be serious, but even being a little more serious might have made this more than a classic messy directorial debut.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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