Sundance 2014: 'Life After Beth' Tries Reverse 'Warm Bodies' & Blows It
by Ethan Anderton
January 22, 2014
Pretty much every year now there seems to be some kind of new take on the zombie subgenre. Last year it was Warm Bodies, and this year, director Jeff Baena tries to reverse that story with the comedy Life After Beth. The film follows Dane DeHaan as Zach, a teen positively devastated after his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) dies after being bitten by a snake while hiking alone. So when DeHaan discovers that Beth is alive again and being hidden by her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), he's enraged, confused, and then enamored with a second chance at love; that is until she shows uncharacteristically powerful strength, her flesh starts deteriorating, she can't focus, and her moods swing violently. Read on!
It's this premise that makes the film promising. In this version of the dead rising from the grave, they all seem to be normal at first, returning to their normal mundane tasks as if nothing has happened. It's a little hard to accept the fact that everyone would be completely cool by the dead mailman coming back to work suddenly, which is probably why the initial reception of this concept is isolated to Beth's family and Zach. One problem is that DeHaan, seemingly miscast, lends a little too much weight and urgency to what's going on with Beth, especially as she falls deeper into zombie-ness, making too much of the comedy fall flat.
The entire cast gives 110%, but the film itself never really comes together to work cohesively. Every now and then the film shows snippets of promise as Beth is sometimes aware that she's changing, stuck between her life from when she was alive and her primitive urges as one of the undead. But writer and director Jeff Baena never explores those avenues. Instead, what is a somewhat amusing film at first takes a turn in the third act to become similar to every other zombie film that's been made. While there's plenty of originality in the idea of communicating with some of the deceased who have been gone for years or even decades, that's about all Life After Beth has to offer on that front, and it's truly disappointing.
The stumbling of this film is a shame, because Aubrey Plaza does a spectacular job with her gradual transformation into a zombie. Anna Kendrick also makes for a breath of fresh air s a bubbly, ditzy girl who ends up crossing paths with DeHaan during his strange relationship status. However, it's hard to forgive the film for relegating someone as comedically talented as Paul Reiser to playing DeHaan's father with only one laugh-out-loud line.
Life After Beth has so much potential in the first half but sputters out in the middle of the second act and into the third act. Under the zombie story, the film is merely a genre approach to exploring the idea of relationships, and what it's like when they crumble. It's an exaggerated version of a real-life break-up, but it's done in a very sloppy and misguided fashion that ruins it. Honestly, the script would have been far better if it were given a bigger budget, recast the lead, and given to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to rewrite and turn into a spiritual sequel to This is The End.
Jeff Baena previously co-wrote I Heart Huckabees, and it's easy to see why there's such a blurry line between the comedy and the serious nature of the story. In addition, Baena doesn't really seem to know what kind of comedy he's going for at all. There's elements of parody, slapstick and dramedy, but they don't mesh together at all. While the idea makes for some amusing scenes and a varied approach to zombies, it's wasted on a misguided film that has a devastatingly odd comedic tone. The debut filmmaker doesn't seem to have a full grasp on comedy as a genre, even if he does a fine job with the horror side of things, and that's not good when trying to tell a story that is supposed to incite laughter.
Ethan's Sundance 2014 Rating: 5 out of 10
Follow Ethan on Twitter - @Ethan_Anderton