7 October 2014

Review: LIFE AFTER BETH

Jeff Baena's previous script was David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabee's, which hardly suggests the crazy territory between earnest indie and midnight madness in which his directorial début Life After Beth dwells all by itself. The zombie comedy is an ever-expanding genre with some pretty high watermarks, but at least the setup of this one is pretty original.

As in Shaun of the Dead, there's a couple's tiff near the beginning, but at the start of the film, Zach's recent ex-girlfriend, Beth, has passed away after picking up a venomous snake bite on a hike. Zach is understandably devastated, with Beth's parents Maury and Geenie providing more solace than his own unsympathetic family. When they too shut him out without warning, he's hurt and confused, but it soon becomes apparent that they're trying to keep a shocking secret- Beth has climbed out of her own grave and shambled back home, apparently completely unaware of the unfortunate event that befell her.

This is very much a film of two parts. The first seems like a wry, indie take on the zombie genre, with more in common with films such as Like Crazy than Zombieland. Dane DeHaan gives a reliably solid turn as the bereaved Zach and he has some particularly touching scenes with John C. Reilly's Maury. Beth doesn't appear in the flesh for a while into the film, barring an opening glimpse of her fateful hike, so there's room to establish her family, her boyfriend and his family before she disrupts the usual suburban grind.

Aubrey Plaza is at the eye of the storm, with Beth making things incrementally crazier from the moment she returns. That aforementioned second part is closer to a cult midnight madness-style movie like Peter Jackson's Braindead, Diablo Cody's Jennifer's Body or any number of Troma films, but Plaza's performance bridges the tonal gap nicely by moving right along with it. She's been in films about young love before and plays that romantic lead from experience, but then seamlessly moves into Linda Blair-style hysterics as Beth degenerates in much the same way zombies do.

It's less smooth for the other characters. Zach may be the incredulous centre, but Reilly's character goes from doting father to overprotective lunatic as the plot demands, undoing some nice early work, and Molly Shannon's Geenie falls by the wayside, picked up for comic relief jabs at her submissive nature. The introduction of a secondary love interest, played by a delightful Anna Kendrick, also feels like an afterthought. On the flipside, Zach's family don't fit in the first half of the film because they're entirely primed for the wackier and more violent stuff later on, especially Matthew Gray Gubler's trigger-happy older brother.

There have been films that successfully wrangled the emotional side of a story with the more exploitative Troma-style influences, most memorably James Gunn's Super, but Jeff Baena doesn't quite pull it off on his first try. There are some plain nasty moments that seem to be there purely to service the noisy midnight crowd, but which feel out of place in a film that puts in so much emotional heavy lifting, simply to abruptly ramp up the crazy. However, this does feel like a distinctly deadpan zombie apocalypse in an over-saturated genre and when it gets into absurd comedy, it's really, really funny.

Despite the missteps, Life After Beth leaves little doubt that Baena could make his Super and maybe even his Guardians of the Galaxy somewhere down the line. The later hysterics make it seem like it actually takes a while to get going, but in reality, it kind of sells out on the character-driven premise for an admittedly hilarious and action-packed third act. Dane DeHaan and John C. Reilly both stand out in spite of this, but Aubrey Plaza comes out of it marvellously, whether chucking cookers about or tearing down buildings with her bare hands to try and spur her mortal boyfriend out of terrified apathy.

Life After Beth is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen Life After Beth, why not share your comments below? Does anyone else agree that the climactic scene is one of the most absurdly moving things ever put to film?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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