If the root of every movie is a question that needs answering, the question posed by writer/director Jeff Baena‘s Life After Beth is, “what if ground zero for a zombie outbreak was some sad suburban wiener and his boring girlfriend?”
The sub-question is, “Is this movie ever going to end?”
Dane Dehaan, who directors frequently employ as Guy Who’s About To Cry, plays that wiener, Zach (great wiener name, incidentally) fully utilizing his impressive moping skills in a film that opens with him trying to buy black napkins for his dead girlfriend’s wake. “That’s more of a Halloween item, maybe try a party store?” the clerk suggests.
Cut to Zach back at his dead girlfriend’s house, bonding with her parents, played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon, over their shared loss. “Call me Maury,” says Reilly, which Zach will soon do roughly 400 times in the next 90 minutes. They smoke a commiseratory joint over a chess game and talk about all the things they wish they’d said to Beth before she died of a freak snake bite accident. Zach leaves thinking he’s made himself some new friends, only when he goes back to play some more chess the next day, Beth’s parents are avoiding him like a Mormon missionary and won’t answer the door. What gives? He peeks inside, and sees a glimpse of Beth. He bursts inside trying to figure out what’s going on. Have they been hiding her from him? Was this all a big hoax? Beth herself (Aubrey Plaza) doesn’t seem to know.
“She’s been resurrected!” Beth’s mom says.
Maury eventually lets Zach come over to see Beth, but only if they stay in the house and Zach promises not to tell her about her recent eath day and uneral fay. Beth is alive, but she’s acting strange. She babbles about having a test even though it’s summer, constantly wants to go on a hike, loves the attic, and only listens to smooth jazz. She seems to be decomposing. It’s compelling enough at first. You want to stick around, if only to see just where the hell the filmmakers are going with all of this.
And then about an hour in it dawns on you: Ohhhh, I see where they were going with this: bad zombie jokes with a really drawn out set up. Beth’s quirks are just quirks of the zombies in this particular outbreak. “They love attics,” Dehaan explains when his dead grandparents show up in his living room asking about the attic.
It’s barely a comedy up until that point and it isn’t a very good one after it. The problem with Life After Beth is that it’s not really about anything. It treads water for a while making you guess what it might be about, but once you realize that it actually doesn’t know, you’re just desperate for it to end. Dehaan only said the Z word (zombie, not Zach) once in the first hour and I was actually hopeful that it was going to have something new to say about corpses or resurrections or relationships or bland suburban wieners named Zach. But by the time Dehaan shouts “You just ate a guy!” at Beth, to which she responds, “I’m a zombie, Zach! Zombies eat guys!” I was ready to clap my palms together like a blackjack dealer and leave the table to the next guy. Thanks for playing everyone, this is your new viewer, Steve, good luck and good night.
I’m a genre trope, Zach! Don’t you understand genre tropes?
Getting chewed out for not understanding genre tenets is actually a pretty good metaphor for the current pop culture atmosphere. Life After Beth uses our preconceived notions of zombies not as a way to examine them, or us, or really anything, but more like something that just happened to be sitting there when it was flailing around grabbing at possible subjects, like a drunk stumbling around his room for a glass of water.
It also doesn’t really have characters. Maury comes the closest, but Beth is a collection of quirks and Zach gets stuck in gently pleading mode the entire movie (also, Paul Reiser is there, whose face makes me reflexively annoyed). By the time Zach cajoles Beth in his wounded child voice for the 57th time you’re ready to put some boxing gloves on him and take him out to the garage to learn to be a man like Robert Deniro in This Boy’s Life. Are you really going to turn me into the angry dad with the crewcut, Life After Beth, are you? Zaaachie Wolff, little Zaaaaachie Wolff… I know a thing or two about a thing or two.
I really like the idea that zombies would love smooth jazz (I’d like to think living corpses would also be into John Mayer and Train) and a few all-too-brief bits of slapstick, but other than that, Life After Beth doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. It desperately needs… something. Characters? A better plot? A reason for existing? Something.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.