Mention the word “zombie” and, immediately, a multitude of cinematic conventions pop into mind. Especially since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead began scaring the wits out of moviegoers in the late 1960s, we’ve come to expect people who come back to life after death to be rambling, shambling, brain-hungry creatures.
Jeff Baena, who wrote and directed Life After Beth, opening at the Texas Theatre, is obviously aware of all those conventions, and so for his movie, he sidesteps the obvious, at least at first. In the opening moments, Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is seen hiking alone on a hillside. Next, her wan, putative boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) is seen mourning her death. Details are scarce, but as Zach wavers between appearances at Beth’s home and his own, it becomes clear that Beth died on her solo hike.
Zach is inconsolable, whether he’s commiserating with Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), being ignored by his own father and mother (Paul Reisser and Cheryl Hines), or being bullied by his brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), a neighborhood security guard. But then Zach sees Beth, apparently alive, in her parents’ house, and he goes fairly mad until he can speak with her again.
Beth’s parents keep telling Zach to calm down, until finally her father takes the boy aside and explains that Beth showed up on their doorstep after the funeral, without explanation, and without all her recent memories. Zach is too overcome with emotion to give the situation much thought; it seems that the couple broke up before she died, and now Zach is obsessed with the idea of reconciliation, no matter her somewhat scattered state of mind.
As noted, writer/director Baena is careful to set up his zombie story with an extended focus on the characters and their families, which distinguishes it right off the bat. Baena, whose only other film credit came as a writer on David O. Russell’s 2004 comedy/drama I Love Huckabees, tells the story through Zach’s eyes but, unfortunately, actor Dane DeHaan comes across as far too weak and foolish in the role. From his rebellious actions, we’d expect more of a decisive personality, yet Zach is a spoiled child throwing a tantrum.
Of course, this Zach is over 18 and an adult, which explains why he is in a relationship with a 21-year-old woman who very much wants to have sex with him. Actually, Beth is a far more compelling character. As played by Plaza, she is obviously not the same person she was before she died; clearly, Zach and her parents are delusional, so drowned by their grief that they are not capable of thinking clearly about what is best for Beth.
What’s fascinating is that, while she was alive, it seems that she was a young woman seeking independence, first from her controlling parents and then from her indecisive boyfriend. In hindsight, one could easily imagine that Beth’s bold solo walk through the woods in the opening scene was intended as her first true adventure as a single adult.
Sadly, Beth did not survive her plunge into independence, but Plaza gives the dead character everything she’s got, at the first emphasizing the more comic aspects of the forgetful girl who’s been “resurrected,” in the eyes of her parents, and is now sexually aggressive toward her ex-boyfriend, who’s initially grateful. She’s gained power since her death, even if it is a short-lived development of her personality.
Life After Beth is an ambitious picture that can’t quite deliver on all the expectations that it builds up. It wavers too much between comedy and drama, resulting in a wishy-washy experience. Yet Plaza’s performance, and the support given, especially by Reilly, Shannon, Reiser, and Hines, pays off in the third act, with a nice variety of comic moments, making the movie an ultimately fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, one to watch.
The film opens exclusive at the Texas Theatre on Friday, September 5. Visit the official site for showtimes and more information.