People often complain that American filmmakers have ran out of good ideas, but that is not entirely fair. The movie industry has reached a point in its maturity that even an unimaginable premise like a “zombie rom-com” feels passé in 2014. Of course, there is a very cut and dry reason why this is. All signs point to Jonathan Levine’s 2013 surprise hit “Warm Bodies,” a hybrid of the zombie movie and the romantic comedy that feels more “Garden State” than “State of Emergency.”
It is unsurprising then that Jeff Baena’s “Life After Beth” appears on the surface to be a bit of a rotting corpse, since what was surely an inspired premise when it was conceived now looks like an also-ran just a year after Nicholas Hoult’s cold heart charmed everyone else’s warm ones. Thankfully, the R-rated “Life After Beth” has a dark side its PG-13 with which its cousin does not dare to flirt.
The film’s perversely dour tone is made apparent immediately in the opening scene, in which Zach (Dane DeHaan) tries to purchase black napkins at a grocery store for the funeral of his deceased girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza). “That’s like a Halloween theme. You should try a party store,” says the store employee.
After some expository grieving and numerous instances highlighting Zach’s pathetic state of being, Beth is resurrected through unknown means that only become more confusing as information comes to light. While “Warm Bodies” lets its zombified protagonists grow more human with time, Beth begins to decompose in comically horrifying ways, all while still not realizing she is not exactly alive.
While the script often cannot keep up with her, this is arguably Aubrey Plaza’s best performance to date. After proving to be an exceptional lead in the otherwise unremarkable “The To Do List,” the physical and emotional range Plaza displays here is impossible to ignore. While flipping from incorrigible rage monster to overzealous sexpot to a scared and vulnerable young woman, often multiple times in the same scene, Plaza elevates every scene in which she appears.
It is a shame that when Plaza is absent, the film only works sporadically. DeHaan consistently expresses a different emotion than the one the page calls for, making scenes that rely on his character expressing any kind of emotional growth ring untrue. A strong supporting cast including John C. Reilly and Matthew Gray Gubler perform ably, but seem greatly underutilized.
At a brisk 91 minutes, “Life After Beth” does not overstay its welcome. The bizarre left turn taken in the third act feels pulled from a different film, creating an odd tonal inconsistency that is even more pronounced because of how well-balanced it is up to that point.
There are many isolated moments in “Life After Beth” where it is both creepy and charming, macabre and moving. While it may not completely deliver, there is much to be said for its ambition and just how close it comes to nailing its lofty objectives.
“Life After Beth” is now playing at the Harkins Shea 14 and on Video On Demand platforms.
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