Melbourne 2014 Review: LIFE AFTER BETH, A Tame Zom-Com

The ever sardonic Aubrey Plaza stars as Beth, alongside Dane DeHaan's Zach, in this frequently odd but half-cooked zombie comedy from the writer of the excellent I Heart Huckabees. Director Jeff Baena only lends some of his brain to the task, unlike Huckabees, a miasma of complex comedy, Life After Beth is only part-way good. It particularly falls apart by the film's tepid ending.

It starts strong; Beth is dead, she was bitten by a snake on a hike. Cut to Zach (DeHaan) who is seen slack jawed picking out black serviettes for her funeral service. We soon learn he is the boyfriend, a strange concoction of Goth sensibility and weakling persona; his character is both poorly presented and frequently annoying. DeHaan is simply not an interesting enough screen presence and mar's the film's mix of strange tone and genuine emotion. 

Plaza is, sadly, not much better. She has a lot of fun with her transformation (or resurrection, as her father puts it) but her character is completely one-note, underwhelming in every respect save for the guttural moans she makes. Her signature sarcasm is barely evident here, unlike a prior film outing, the excellent The To-Do List.

The film really comes to life, pun intended, thanks to the supporting cast. The ever-excellent John C. Reilly plays Beth's dad. He nails the bizarre father figure concerned for his undead daughter's safety to a T. When things get even weirder, so does his character. Accompanying him is Molly Shannon as the mother, who also provides her deadpan cinematic chops. Zach's brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler) is also frequently hilarious, his gun-crazy character providing most of the laughs. The rest of the laughs come from some unexpected places that would be a spoiler to mention here.

Things escalate plot-wise when Zach tries to explore his relationship with Beth, while avoiding being eaten in the process. What follows is an awkward jumble of relationship complexity and the bigger picture of a potential apocalypse that makes little sense.

Accompanying these bizarre scenes of semi-zombification and suburban unrest are some gorgeous scenery and serviceable camera work that does not need to do too much. The score comes and goes as an angst-ridden guitar riff. The rest of the music is a brilliantly oddball choice of smooth jazz, apparently calming Beth. When this music plays during key scenes of conflict or supposed emotional catharsis, the contradiction proves always hilarious and uncanny.

It is ultimately quite disheartening that the writer of one of my favourite films has made an equally complex tale with none of the meat or solid direction required for it. Flashes of Baena's genius comes from the supporting cast and quandary around the protagonists, but the central conceit does not stand up in comparison to the hilarious craziness around it.
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