Life After Beth is weird and confused and, despite a game Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza, sadly not very good.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Life After Beth’s first mistake is showing us pretty much nothing prior to Beth’s death. There is a short little pair of shots of Beth (Aubrey Plaza) on the hike where she dies, but that’s it. So, straight off the bat, the film faces an uphill battle, as we are dropped into Zach’s (Dane DeHaan) grief with little context besides the fact that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. Emphasis on “were” as the two had broken up with each other in the week leading up to her death. It’s unclear as to whether this was Zach or Beth’s doing, as well, and at no point do we get an indication of their relationship prior to the events of the film outside of said break-up, and you can probably already tell the issue here.
In any case, about a week after her death, Beth rises from her grave and returns home to her alternately terrified and overjoyed parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), who keep her sheltered from the world and her condition sheltered from her for obvious reasons. Zach, however, still grieving majorly about the whole thing, manages to force his way in and is similarly alternately terrified and overjoyed about his girlfriend being resurrected, especially since the week between the two of them breaking up and her death is conveniently hazy for her. From there…
Well, here’s the film’s second mistake. The premise is thin, but you can stretch it out to a 90 minute film if you work hard enough on that one bit. Life After Beth, however, is like a magpie; it keeps getting distracted by different shiny objects and only really returns to that original idea, what should be the emotional centre of this whole crazy mess, when it looks back over at it and remembers how shiny it is. The film also wants you to invest in Zach’s cartoonishly uncaring and one-note family, to find Beth’s dad, Maury, overly sheltering and a threat to the couple’s happiness, to also root for Zach to drop Beth and get with a just-returned childhood friend, Erica (Anna Kendrick), and to be sufficiently intrigued and worried by the fact that Beth doesn’t seem to be the only one returning from the dead to not care when that subplot hijacks the majority of the film’s last half-hour.
It’s a very confused film, and writer/director Jeff Baena’s script and direction do little to paper up those cracks. There seems to be no real thematic through line, because the film keeps shifting focus and ideas every few minutes, so it has a slightly hypocritical bent to some parts of it – you gain no prizes for figuring out that Maury is both kinda right in sheltering Beth and that the film painting him as a villain for doing so, when the rather obsessive Zach wants her all for himself but is a hero for that, feels more than a bit selective in the morality sense. The film seems like it’s painting Beth’s return as a second chance for Zach, as some kind of chance to right some kind of wrong he committed the first time, but that feels weird seeing as we have no idea what he may or may not have done wrong the first time, and it all gets lost in the shuffle as the film goes on and becomes more and more overcrowded.
The theme problem then gets exacerbated by the poorly developed characters. Nobody here feels like a real believable person for various reasons. Either they awkwardly flip-flop based on what the current scene is telling them to be (Zach), or they’re still a draft or two away from doing or being what they keep being teased to be (Maury), or they’re so cartoonishly one-dimensional and try-too-hard-to-be-quirky as to be annoying instead of entertaining (Zach’s older brother Kyle, who is a paranoid, abusive, gun-nut security officer), or they’re pointless (Erica) or wasted (Beth’s mum, Geenie), or they’re Beth herself.
Beth isn’t really a character so much as just the thing whose existence the film revolves around. She doesn’t have any real consistency, flitting wildly between scenes, she doesn’t have much in the way of a personality, and that lack of pre-death time means there’s no baseline to measure the dead-alive Beth against. She’s a weird blank slate that gets re-arranged into whatever the film needs her to be at whatever time, and any impression she makes is down to the always likeable Aubrey Plaza instead of herself. And, yes, there is the weird uncomfortableness that stems from her becoming more zombie-like the angrier and, for lack of a better term, bitchier she gets.
Then there’s the issue that this comedy is lacking in laughs. It’s not completely without them, especially when it lets Aubrey Plaza go full-zombie near its end game, but it is weirdly lacking in actual jokes. The scenes where laughs are supposed to come kind of just ramble with no real construction until you eventually laugh at something, although I’ll be damned if I figured out what said laugh was supposed to be about 80% of the time. Otherwise, a lot of the film is played weirdly straight but also kinda isn’t? There are a lot of scenes that are supposed to be played for some kind of emotional resonance, but the film keeps undercutting them with its desire to be off-beat, and I found that rather distracting. It’s especially bad during what is supposed to be the film’s big emotional climax, where whatever power a scene lacking in pre-film context could have had is immediately set on fire by having a ridiculous piece of physical comedy occur seconds after its crescendo. It’s jarring, and not in a good way, the definite mark of a first-time director who hasn’t figured out how to juggle disparate tones yet.
None of this is to say that Life After Beth is without merit. After all, I laughed occasionally, I was never bored, and its cast is game. John C. Reilly is madly trying to fill in the blanks in his character, Molly Shannon is asked to Molly Shannon for 90-odd minutes and she’s more than happy to do that, Anna Kendrick literally walks into the film for about two or three scenes and is adorably charmingly amazing as per usual (yes, I have my biases, at least I admit them), whilst Aubrey Plaza is strangely withheld from large sections of the runtime but she attempts to make the most of them when she gets the chance, and I will cop to finding her full-zombie really funny. Dane DeHaan, meanwhile, continues his post-Chronicle career path of wasting his considerable talents on films that don’t deserve them, managing to keep Zach a consistent and interesting character whilst the film is running and visibly straining to make the more dramatic scenes work.
Life After Beth, then, is a failure, but it is an interesting failure. It’s the kind of failure where one can see where the potential for a very good and maybe even great film is located, but can also see it, in real time no less, squander said potential due to a bunch of mistakes that could have easily been sorted out. It all comes back to that script, which is at least five-or-so drafts away from tapping that potential but, as is, is an unfocussed and rather unfinished mess. There’s a really talented cast desperately trying to raise the material on display, but they just end up being wasted. I was never bored, I was even fitfully entertained, but I was severely disappointed and ultimately unfulfilled.