Thursday, August 28, 2014

Undying Love: Plaza and DeHaan a touching pair in "Life After Beth"

Life After Beth (2014)
91 min., rated R.

Just when you were ready to put the zombie subgenre to bed once and for all, "Life After Beth" comes along and has its own inspired, twistedly romantic slant to offer. Even after last year's surprisingly sweet "Warm Bodies," there's still a little life left here. "I Huckabees" screenwriter Jeff Baena's writing-directing debut, the film is tonally off-kilter, expectedly amusing and just fun asin the words of star Aubrey Plaza from promotional interviewsa "zom-com-rom-dram" but it's unexpectedly tragic, too. While some may remain uncertain about the tone, Baena smartly avoids winks and nudges or silliness and plays the situation straight with doses of droll, quirky humor. "Life After Beth" doesn't go quite as far with its promising premise as it could have to instantaneously make cult-classic status, but its players are delights, and the film that actually made the cut is just too sensitively drawn to not adore.

21-year-old Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite after going for a hike alone. This leaves her recently dumped boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan), in a painfully deep state of mourning. He wears her colorful scarf in the summer heat and spends a lot of time visiting Beth's grieving parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), whom he can relate to more than his real family, parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser) and his security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler). When Zach tries coming to the Slocum household again, he swears he spots Beth from a window, and it's true. His sweet Beth is very much alive, or just back from the grave, while her parents see her inscrutable return as a resurrection but keep her cooped up in the house until night falls. Beth gets right back to loving Zach, as does he, but she likes hanging out in the attic and starts getting welts on her face and displaying wild mood swings and memory loss. It's nice to have Beth back, but can Zach put up with her inhuman strength and flesh-eating habits?

A superior version of 1993's tongue-in-cheek "My Boyfriend's Back" with risks taken in tonality like 2009's "Jennifer's Body," "Life After Beth" is quite a different animal. It may be about a boy and his zombified girlfriend, but at its heart is a through-line about loss and how human relationships can be the most fragile as life itself, growing all the more resonant the longer one thinks about it. Sometimes, the love of your life can just slip away, and just sometimes they can come back when we least expect and eat the interior of your car like a rabid animal. At the start, when we briefly meet Beth hiking through Los Angeles' Griffith Park, there is menace early on, aided by a grunge rock score composed by band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The film oddly begins with Beth dead in the next scene and Zach looking for black napkins at a supermarket to bring to Beth's wake. Little groundwork has been built, so we have little context or idea what Zach and Beth's relationship has really been like up to the present. Beyond this underdeveloped hump, though, there are still pangs of sadness. Such horror-tinged atmosphere in the opening is then juxtaposed with the smooth jazz music that can comfort Beth's ears and get her in the lusty mood (one of the film's slyer laughs). The blood-thin material verges on being a premise rather than a story, but Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza take it far with their dedication and are well-supported by comedic talent.

In a reactive performance of brooding relatability, unflagging young actor Dane DeHaan admirably underplays his role of the heartsick Zach. He grounds the film, making his mixture of feelings palpably sad, and might be one of the reasons why the material straddles a tricky tone of mourning and heightened reality so well. Then there's Aubrey Plaza, who throws herself into the role of Beth. The deadpan cut-up who was born to play Daria Morgendorffer is nowhere to be found here; instead, she displays a wide range of notes from confusion to arousal to moodiness to psychosis. It's a chewy performance with primal, physical challenges, and Plaza knows when to dial it back and when to turn herself into a lunatic. Playing Beth's loving parents who cling to the pleasant memories of their daughter and then make up for lost time by snapping photos, the equally invaluable John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon enliven straight-faced roles that could have been one-note or left them to just yuk it up. As Erica Wexler, the daughter of Zach's mom's friend, Anna Kendrick brings a ditsy sweetness to a supporting role that comes in handy by the end. Finally, the very funny Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser aren't given a whole lot to do and, thus, struggle to bring any dimension to Zach's self-absorbed, emotionally robotic parents who haven't been written as real, feeling people, while Matthew Gray Gubler is too much of a broad cartoon as his idiotic, paranoid brother.

Amidst the horrific trappings and even humor of an undead romance, there is a simple, heartbreaking melancholy at the foot of "Life After Beth" (a clever title, by the way). When it tries to be more and work in a larger zombie apocalypse taking over for the third act, the film can't quite make up its mind on where it wants to go. Nevertheless, the character interactions, especially those between Zach and Beth, are touching and eclipse the sketchier plotting. If a growling, tongue-wagging Beth being strapped to an oven doesn't subjectively make for a hilarious sight gag (though it is), then the gutsy, sorrowful final image with the young lovers going on a hike sticks around longer than one would ever expect. Love is a tricky emotion when one of you keeps decomposing.


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