Give Life After Beth credit for at least trying to do something more with the overused, worn-out, and otherwise tiresome zombie movie. Here, the zombie apocalypse is used as an analogy for breaking up with someone and moving on from that person. And if you think about the film in that context, that aspect of it is clever and works pretty well. It’s just that, well, most of the rest of the movie just doesn’t work at all, and most of your audience either (1) won’t care about the analogical aspect or (2) won’t even notice.
Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is dead. She went hiking, a snake bit her, and she died. The leading character, then, is Zach (Dane DeHaan), her long-term boyfriend. Along with Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), he grieves. He is sad all the time, and his family doesn’t seem to really care. In fact, he winds up spending more time with Beth’s parents than his own in the days following her death. The whole opening of the film is really quite sad, and it captures the tone and mood of a post-funeral house life quite well.
But then Maury and Geenie stop answering their telephone and the door. Zach thinks something is up and winds up more or less breaking into their house. What does he find? Beth. Beth, the girl who died, and is now the girl who lived. She doesn’t remember that she died, or anything from the last couple of weeks. She just knows that she loves Zach, even though they were talking about maybe breaking up before her untimely demise. But Beth’s resurrection has to be kept a secret, because resurrections are kind of a rare occurrence. There was the Jesus one and then, well, none other ever in the history of the world.
Beth isn’t the same person she was before her death. But everyone is so glad to have her back that they don’t notice. They look past the flaws, like how her skin is slowly rotting, how she has a bit of a temper, and how she for some reason is really into jazz music now. It’s like how people, after a breakup, try to rationalize getting back together with someone and ignoring the reason they broke up in the first place. Or so I gather. That’s how our analogy is working, folks.
There are a couple of amusing moments to be had from the characters’ refusal to tell Beth that she’s kind of a zombie, and Aubrey Plaza sells the ignorance and craziness so well that you can almost be entertained throughout. Hold on. I said almost. Apart from her, the first few scenes the film has, its analogy — and some mild zom-com comedy — Life After Beth is mostly just a dull slog.
The problem comes from much of the film not really doing a whole lot outside the norm. Zombie comedies are a dime a dozen, as they’re cheap to make and don’t require an immense amount of talent to pull off, and this one doesn’t even come close to reaching, say, Shaun of the Dead levels. The zombie makeup looks pretty good, I’ll admit, but there isn’t a lot of humor throughout, and the characters and plot are so underwritten or unimportant that we can’t fall back on those when the jokes run out. And the jokes run out about 30 minutes in.
Dane Dehaan is in pretty much every scene and I struggled to remember his character’s name, let alone a single thing about him — other than his affection for Beth. John C. Reilly is actually really good in a supporting role, but it’s a thankless job. Actors like Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, and Matthew Gray Gubler all have supporting roles, and none of them get anything to do. And without a funny — or deep — screenplay, it all falls on Aubrey Plaza’s shoulders. She’s almost good enough to make Life After Beth worth watching, but I don’t know if any actor would have been able to pull that off.
There are some good ideas at play in Life After Beth, but it’s a shame that the film surrounding them just isn’t that good. The film’s central analogy works well when you think about it, but let’s face it: most people won’t. The characters are poor, the plot is something we’ve seen before, and it’s not particularly funny — which matters for a comedy. Aubrey Plaza does a good job trying to hold our attention, but her performance isn’t enough to make Life After Beth worth seeing.