D: Jeff Baena / 89m
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick
Zach Orfman (DeHaan) has been devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Plaza). Unable to fully come to terms with her passing, Zach spends time after the funeral with her parents, Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon). His behaviour concerns his own parents, Judy (Hines) and Noah (Reiser), as well as his brother Kyle (Gubler). When Zach goes to see the Slocums but they don’t answer the door, or return his phone calls he’s initially upset. He decides to try one last time to see them but when he does they still don’t answer the door. Knowing they’re inside, Zach looks in through one of the windows… and sees Beth.
Forcing his way in, Zach confronts the Slocums who tell him that Beth came home on the night of the wake and seems fine, but she has no memory of dying; as far as she’s concerned she has a test at school the next day even though it’s summer break. The Slocums allow Zach to visit Beth but insist he doesn’t tell her what’s happened to her. Zach reluctantly agrees and the two resume dating, but Beth’s behaviour is erratic and demanding. As time goes on it becomes more difficult to hide the fact that Beth has come back from the dead. She begins to deteriorate, but her parents continue to reject Zach’s pleas to tell her the truth.
Things come to a head when Zach bumps into an old schoolfriend, Erica (Kendrick) at a restaurant. He tells her about Beth’s death (but not her resurrection). When he leaves he (literally) runs over Beth who is unharmed. Erica appears and is surprised by Beth’s appearance. Beth realises Zach is keeping something from her, and forces him to tell her what it is. He shows Beth her grave and the hole in it where she got out. She runs off. Zach returns home to find his dead grandfather has returned as well; it becomes clear that the dead are returning in droves and the town becomes a disaster zone, with vigilante groups culling the undead. Still in love with Beth he races to the Slocums to rescue her, but now Beth is constantly in need of food, preferably human flesh. Zach is faced with a terrible choice: to travel far away with Beth and keep her safe, or send her back to the grave.
A rom-zom-com with plenty of heart (and other body parts), Life After Beth is a deftly funny diversion that treats its central character with dignity and affection, even when she is trying to devour someone or has degenerated into a snarling zombie. It walks a fine line between horror and comedy, and adds romance to the mix with surprising ease, making its absurd premise all the more believable. It’s all cleverly done, and though it would have been easy to do so, doesn’t rely on self-reflexive in-jokes or knowing nods to the camera. Life After Beth is played largely straight, incorporating humour with a relaxed confidence, and making the horror elements as gruesome as the material needs (which isn’t very gruesome).
The partly traditional romantic tale is well catered for – boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, girl turns into ravenous monster, boy still loves her – and is handled with assurance by Plaza and DeHaan. Plaza effects Beth’s transformation from slightly confused corpse to psychotic girlfriend to the aforementioned ravenous monster with a surprising amount of charm, investing Beth with an unexpected warmth that offsets the cruel trajectory her character takes as the movie progresses. With her pinched features and wide eyes, Plaza makes Beth both dangerous and (relatively) innocent at the same time. As the bewildered and conflicted Zach, DeHaan shows an aptitude for comedy that might not have been readily apparent from his previous movie roles, and is a delight to watch as he struggles with his feelings for Beth in the face of her rapidly deteriorating behaviour. Together, they’re a winning team, sparking off each other and making Zach and Beth’s relationship entirely credible – even if one of them is dead.
Writer/director Baena’s only previous credit is the script for David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees (2004). With such an assured movie as this it’s a shame he hasn’t had any other projects produced since then. He gets the tone just right, even when he throws in some awkward necrophilia, and as mentioned already, obtains strong performances from his two leads while allowing his supporting cast to do what they do best: almost steal the movie. Reilly is on great form, turning self-denial into a personal mantra, and Shannon is terrific as well, her offbeat screen persona a perfect match for Geenie, a woman who responds to life just a second or two too late (watch out for how she feeds Beth at one point).
The movie extracts so much good will in its relatively short running time it’s almost embarrassing, but Life After Beth is that enjoyable; at times it’s a romp, at other times it’s a sly meditation on love’s permanence and the sacrifices we make to hold onto it. Baena even finds time to add one of the year’s funniest moments as Beth leaves home strapped to a cooker. It’s laugh out loud funny and worthy of an award all on its own.
Rating: 8/10 – everything a good rom-zom-com should be, Life After Beth is a small-scale delight; witty, with plenty of pathos and charm, it’s refreshingly mounted and seductively light-hearted – in short, an absolute joy.