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Life After Beth explores a relationship pickle that’s likely never graced Dan Savage’s inbox: When your recently deceased girlfriend comes back to life, should you tell her she’s been six feet under? Jeff Baena’s directorial debut, starring Aubrey Plaza as the unexpectedly undead, offers arguments for both sides. What it doesn’t give you—at least in a timely enough manner—is a clear idea of what exactly Beth 2.0 is. The mystery proves to be more distracting than intriguing.
Baena, who also wrote the script (and has only one previous screenplay credit, for 2004’s I Heart Huckabees), tinkers with zombie conventions, which is the film’s primary problem. After Beth’s death, her boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan, last seen as the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2), starts spending a lot of time with her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon). Soon they start to avoid him—so, naturally, Zach stalks their house. And then he goes bananas when he spies Beth walking around inside.
Beth’s parents can’t keep her return a secret forever, though, and Zach eventually forces his way into the home and sees her face-to-face. She doesn’t remember the whole dying thing and is spacey in general, but otherwise looks and acts normal. When her dad, Maury—as he insisted Zach call him after the funeral—tries to stop Zach from taking Beth out during the day, you assume it’s so she won’t be spotted. But it’s actually because the sun burns her skin. The new Beth also comes with a voracious and aggressive carnal appetite. So far, so vampire. And so not a rom-zom-com, as the film has been described.
Yet Beth is indeed a zombie, apparently one undergoing a protracted and atypical morph. Her moods swing wildly, from sweet and sexual to whiny and nagging to angry and violent. Zach, in turn, stops being grateful that she’s back and, as he tells an acquaintance (played by an underutilized Anna Kendrick), starts wishing that “she’d stay dead.”
With the genius Shaun of the Dead as the golden zom-com standard, Life After Beth had a nearly unwinnable battle the second it was green-lighted. Thus, the result is as anticipated: The film isn’t witty or fresh enough to justify its 91 minutes. (Simply revamping the qualities of a classic horror monster doesn’t count as “fresh” in my book.) Plaza is the only reason to see it, even if she isn’t allowed to let loose until the halfway mark. She breezes through Beth’s lightning-quick personality changes deftly and is especially wince-inducing when in pissy-girlfriend mode.
Beth was an avid hiker, so at one point, Zach tries to calm her down by suggesting they hit the hills—while she’s chained to a stove. Watching Plaza flail on her back when she falls or hearing her say “it’s pretty” with the voice of The Exorcist’s Regan are highlights that far outshine the rest of the film’s humor. DeHaan, looking like a young DiCaprio and a bit otherworldly himself, is serviceable enough, and Zach’s given a trigger-happy, authority-obsessed older brother (Matthew Gray Gubler) whose militance provides some laughs. Co-starring with Reilly and Shannon are Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser as Zach’s parents, but like Kendrick, they’re not even nudged toward their comic potential.
Toward the end of the film, more walking dead show up (the best being Zach’s grandfather), and there’s an inspired joke about these zombies’ fondness for smooth jazz. But Baena flattens it by introducing it too late and repeating it too closely to work as a running gag. And, really, haven’t we all had enough of these flesh-eaters? In a perfect world, Life After Beth would justify its existence by showing Hollywood it’s way past time to take a break from the wearied genre. But as it stands—or clumsily ambles—it’s more likely that such clones will keep multiplying as fast as those apocalyptic brain-eaters.
Life After Beth opens Aug. 22 at West End Cinema.