Every other year or so, someone comes down the indie-movie pike with an idea for an unconventional zombie movie — as opposed to the workaday ones, where the dead simply return to life and chew on limbs and stuff. Life After Beth, the debut film from writer-director Jeff Baena, strives to be wilder and wackier — in a deadpan way — than your garden-variety Dawn of the Dead thing. Aubrey Plaza is the Beth of the title, who, as the movie opens, has just been laid to everlasting rest after a fatal snakebite. Her grief-stricken boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan), can't adjust. He keeps wandering over to her parents' house, trying to assuage his sadness by playing numbed-out chess games with her dad (John C. Reilly). Beth's mom (Molly Shannon) gives him a woolen scarf that belonged to her daughter.
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Pale, lanky Zach spends the movie's first twenty minutes loitering wanly, swaddled in his miniature, multicolored security blankie, uncertain about how to get his life jump-started and perhaps wondering if he even wants to. Imagine his surprise when he learns that Beth has reappeared at her parents' house, looking perky and normal in a dotty white cotton dress. Beth's mom is delighted: "She's my baby girl! She's resurrected! It's a miracle!" she cries out with maniacal joy, which is just the first clue that something is terribly wrong with this revivified, vaguely zonked version of the girl they used to know. The second or third or fourth clue, if you're counting, is that Beth suddenly becomes crazy about the local smooth-jazz radio station, whose stupefying noodling permeates the movie from there on out.
Scene by scene, Baena (who, with David O. Russell, co-wrote I Heart Huckabees) builds a bizarro world in which deranged mailmen drive on the sidewalk and dust-covered dead grandpas reappear to scare the bejesus out of their kids and grandkids. Except it's not quite as crazy as it needs to be: There's something listless about Life After Beth. It starts out as a reflection on the potentially morbid nature of grief and then doesn't seem to know where to go.
Life After Beth
Life After BethWritten and directed by Jeff Baena. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler and Anna Kendrick.
Life After Beth might have worked simply as a vehicle for Plaza, who, with her Campbell Kid eyes and wickedly juicy smile, truly seems game for anything. She was dazzling in last summer's The To-Do List, as a recent high-schooler who sets out to perfect her sexual prowess before heading off to college. Plaza comes off as a bit of a nut, in a good way, but she always knows when to pull back: Contemporary comedy written for women sometimes leans a little too hard on self-humiliation for laughs, but Plaza — unlike, say, Melissa McCarthy — knows instinctively where the cutoff is, never veering into self-abasement.
But Life After Beth doesn't serve her well. She's funny enough in the early moments, when her living-dead randiness takes Zach by surprise. But before long, there's nothing left for her to do but mewl and roll her eyes. At that point, it's up to DeHaan to sustain the movie, and he can't quite do it.