Life After Beth (2014)
Dan DeHaan (Zach Orfman), Aubrey Plaza (Beth Slocum), John C. Reilly (Maury Slocum), Molly Shannon (Geenie Slocum), Paul Reiser (Noah Orfman), Cherly Hines (Judy Orfman), Matthew Gray Gubler (Kyle Orfman), Anna Kendrick (Erica Wexler)
Dead people returning to life
“A young man’s recently deceased girlfriend mysteriously returns from the dead, but he slowly realizes she is not the way he remembered her.” – Taken from the IMDb.com entry for Life After Beth.
There is an epidemic going around right now: it’s called “zombie fatigue.” Causes are unknown, though sufferers blame the transmission of the disease on an over-abundance of pop culture (be it movies, books, comics, games, merchandise) based around zombies. Symptoms include incessant complaining, insipid article commenting, and overuse of capital letters to describe just how “over” zombies the victim is. It is the most obnoxious disease this side of Celiac.
Popularity of any sort of thing is going to cause a lot of shit to slip through the cracks, but a market that’s going to green-light “anything” based around whatever thing is popular is as good for fans of that thing as it is bad. So we got 6 Resident Evil movies, you know what else we got? The Revenant, Slither, Shaun of the Dead, Fido, [REC] and we wouldn’t have gotten those if Resident Evil hadn’t pulled the genre out of hiatus. Zombie movies can be insipid and dumb but they can also take chances and do new and interesting things because popularity means very little oversight; this is why there are countless good zombie and vampire movies but only six good werewolf movies.
Still, I must admit that I am not immune to zombie fatigue. My interest in Life After Beth went from piqued to zero in pretty much no time. I should’ve seen the signs: polarizing titular star, bad release date for this type of movie, easy comparison to bad 80s movies: those are all signs that maybe I shouldn’t believe the hype and give it a shot but I had my reasons. I haven’t been impressed with Aubrey Plaza outside of Parks and Recreation, the trailer was a bit too twee, and I have seen My Boyfriend’s Back, Boy Eats Girl, and Ed and His Dead Mother (Of course I’ve also seen Dead-Alive, but I know a one-time fluke when I see it and that movie is one).
I didn’t even realize that Life After Beth was a doomsday movie, my only reason for even deciding to watch it was that my wife wanted to watch something and I would rather hammer roofing nails into my eyes than watch another episode of Chopped. What followed was bemusement followed by genuine surprise and delight and now I see that Life After Beth is much more than I expected and that the hate lobbed its way has less to do with a lack of quality and more with tone.
The first reason I think this movie failed to connect with an audience and flopped so hard (other than the fact that it was a romantic horror comedy released to select theaters in fucking August) is the fault of writer/director Jeff Baena. If you saw I Heart Huckabees (which Baena wrote) then you know his sensibilities skew pretty heavily on the dark side. His writing is really polarizing and Beth, due to its genre, has the ability to go so much darker than Huckabees ever could have dreamed. And it goes there, it goes there with a vengeance.
The problem with these “loved one returns” movies is, even though they use flesh-eating zombies, they tend to play it safe with the horror. Oh sure, people get eaten but it’s largely played for laughs and the plot gets resolved in a decent way and everybody goes about their lives having learned an important lesson. Life After Beth doesn’t have a lot of gore, but it takes its premise to its most logically dark conclusion: the dead are rising (not just Beth) and there’s something seriously wrong with them. They’re violent, irritable, they hide in attics, and after a while they just start eating people. Zach’s relationship problems with his recently resurrected girlfriend are set against a backdrop of the world ending all around him. I’ll get to the really fucked up stuff when I get to the spoilers section but trust me when I say that this is to My Boyfriend’s Back what The Revenant was to Dead Heat.
The trailer for Life After Beth presents the movie as a goofy indie comedy that skirts around dark matter with a twee sense of abandon, not the kind of movie that shows you a naked and uncompromising view of grief that will cut you to the quick and then pepper in some awkward humor as things go from sad to tragic. There’s a bit in Observe and Report where a character, wanting to hear Seth Rogen’s lead get some bad news, steps out of the closet he’s been hiding in and says (paraphrasing) “So, I thought this would be funny… but it’s actually just kinda sad.” That line sums up this movie better than anything I can write.
Don’t think that this movie’s tone is actually a problem, though. Life After Beth IS a good movie, it’s just not remotely what you’re going to expect it to be. The jokes are funny, they work, and the comedic timing is great but anybody expecting a comedy with horror elements rather than a horror with comedic elements is in for a sobering experience.
The movie’s greatest asset is its cast. John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon as Beth’s parents have a sort of madcap zaniness about them after Beth’s revival that’s steeped in the depth that we’ve seen in the opening scenes of the movie. Reilly’s Maury post-revival is a goofy madman, trying to smooth everything over but paired against the grieving father he played at the beginning you can see the pain beyond the denial that anything is wrong. And Shannon’s grin-and-bear-it attitude and habit of taking an absurd amount of pictures seems pretty funny, but her previous bits about how she wished she’d been more positive and taken more pictures of her daughter add a note of sadness to her over-the-top antics.
This is Dane DeHaan’s first comedy and, though I never would’ve imagined it from his other movies, he’s got definite chops. DeHaan plays Zach with the awkward, melodramatic, and immature sincerity of a teenager who has lost a loved one. There’s a note of desperation to everything Zach does which manages to be both funny and sad and if not for our titular character he’d be the selling point of the movie.
Aubrey Plaza is known for speaking in a monotone, acting completely disinterested, and generally just being stoic and condescending. This act has worked incredibly well on Parks and Recreation, but it’s worked horrible anywhere else that it’s been attempted. In much the same vein as other performers who got pigeonholed into just one type of performance (See: Zach Galifianakis – The Hangover or Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids) she was written off as a one-note actor and underused in a lot of stuff. Plaza acts the hell out of Beth Slocum, she’s a very tragic character who’s as confused and lost with her condition as Zach is and even when she turns into a slobbering monster with a hunger for flesh, she’s struggling with her emotions for Zach and her own current state up till the end. That Plaza can wring humor out of this character at all is astounding but she regularly steps up to the plate with this role and she deserves all the accolades I can think of for that.
Speaking of the humor, I think I really need to address that since I’ve been talking up the drama so much. There’s a lot of comedy mined from gallows humor as in the opening scene where Zach stands inside a department store looking for napkins to take to the Slocum’s house when he goes to sit shiva with Beth’s family, and the clerk tells him that black napkins are more of a Halloween item.
A lot of jokes center around the melodramatic and very teen-aged way that Zach deals with his grief by dressing in all black and sitting by the pool with sunglasses on, wearing Beth’s scarf around all the time in the dead of summer, and at one point attempting the masturbate with the scarf. The biggest amount of laughs come from Zach’s older brother Kyle (played by Matthew Gubler or Criminal Minds). Kyle is an obsessive gun nut that doesn’t really understand social cues and finds his brother’s behavior both embarrassing and stupid. His reaction to Zach are great, his dealing with the end of the world brings a few of the movie’s darkest laughs, and his rambling arguments with DeHaan are one of the movie’s highlights.
The actual rules of the zombies are pretty funny too. For some reason the recently returned dead love attics and make them into weird mud-huts. Also they find smooth jazz to be soothing where all other music is painful and riles them up. The bit about the jazz is one of the most consistently funny running jokes in the whole movie.
Not everything works, though. Movies of this sub-sub-genre always have to introduce a love interest for the main character to use to get past their feelings for their departed loved one and this movie almost bucks that trend until late into act 2 when Anna Kendrick’s Erica Wexler shows up. Erica is a childhood friend of Zach’s and their meet-cute is pretty forced with Zach complimenting her skin and asking to touch it. This appears to be a joke and a deliberate send-up of this sort of a relationship in other movie’s of this type by making their interactions really weird and uncomfortable and Zach’s ultimate play for her romance (after she’s been utterly traumatized by the events of the movie) come across as another deeply painful joke that’s more painful than it is funny. Her character isn’t really needed and Kendrick doesn’t get to do much here anyway so she could have easily been cut from the movie (just like Alia Shawkat was) without hurting anything.
The following spoils the whole thing so read on at your own risk.
Where the movie really made me appreciate it was when it took the cards it had on the table, looked at them and saw how every other non-Peter Jackson movie in this sub-genre wimps out on the follow-through and doubled down. I can imagine nobody who saw the trailer imagined there’d be a scene of Molly Shannon’s character cutting off her own fingers and feeding them to her daughter. I bet they never though Anna Kendrick’s character would be reduced to a catatonic mess while Zach’s parents fawn over her and tell their son “She’s a little messed up, but doesn’t she look good?” I bet they didn’t expect the movie to climax with Zach hiking to the top of the mountain with Beth (who still has a stove tied to her back) and shooting her in the head, and they certainly didn’t expect the camera to linger on her body as it flops lifelessly down the hill, losing a leg in the process.
Of course, the movie does pull one punch by having the whole thing get wrapped up off-screen in the last few minutes of the movie and life returning to order, but until that moment I have to at very least salute its chutzpah.
I completely get why so many people didn’t like this movie and that’s fine but I feel like there’s a real sleeper-hit in the making here. This movie is dark, funny, smart, and it’s got a nice take on a familiar story that may just clear up that zombie fatigue you’ve got. It’s not a perfect movie but I really liked it and if you’ve been sitting on the fence or just didn’t bother because of all the negativity that got sent its way I strongly urge you to give this a chance. Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex has much stiffer competition than it would seem.
Life After Beth is available through Amazon on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as Instant.
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