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September 2, 2015

Life After Beth

by Franz Patrick


Life After Beth (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Grief-stricken by the sudden death of his girlfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan) spends most of his time and energy with Beth’s equally devastated parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon). Several days after Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is buried, Zach takes a peek through the Slocum’s window and sees his girlfriend walking around. Convinced that her “death” is only an elaborate hoax because she did not want to break up with him, Zach is determined to get an explanation from Beth and her family.

“Life After Beth,” written and directed by Jeff Baena, has a tolerable few first few minutes but it only gets increasingly bad as it goes on. Already light on horror compounded with barely any comedy in its bones, the picture is stuck in soporific limbo, relying solely on its potentially amusing premise to barely get by. This is another movie that proves the horror-comedy genre is tough act to pull off well.

It should have covered a spectrum of emotions. The first act could have worked as a drama given that the characters are in mourning of a life taken too soon. The middle portion could have been an effective romantic comedy that allows us to get a complete idea of how Zach and Beth were like together before her transition. And the final third could have worked as a horror-comedy, somewhere along the lines of Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.” Alas, the screenplay relies only on behavior to tell its unfunny, far from amusing “jokes.”

The material appears to have no understanding of what grief is really like. There is not one character here written to respond like a human being after he or she has lost a loved one. Reilly and Shannon look as though they are aware they are in a spoof. DeHaan does not stand a chance because Zach is written like a walking checklist of someone who is clinically depressed—not someone who is grieving. There is a subtle but important difference.

DeHaan and Plaza share no chemistry, but the bigger concern is the screenplay not allowing the two of them to have a genuinely sweet moment. It is important that the audience be shown or are inspired to imagine how the couple are or might be like if the whole premise involving one coming back from the dead had been taken away completely. The relationship being grounded in reality is the only way we grow to care about the characters even if the performers do not emit spark together.

There is a subplot involving an apocalypse which is completely mishandled. It is anticlimactic instead of thrilling, quite bland and boring instead of exciting. We never get the impression that anything remotely bonkers can occur at any time so we sit in our chairs feeling confused as to why the writer-director has chosen to go down such a path. Maybe he ran out of ideas and felt compelled to attach a third act—any third act just to have one? Or it is possible, since it is his first feature film, that Baena had too many ideas but chose the wrong ones to put into celluloid.

Either way, “Life After Beth” does not work. The horror-comedy genre tends to work if functioning under extremes: It is either so funny that we welcome—and eventually crave—the unsuspected scares or so scary that when the comedy does arrive, we are not sure whether to laugh or label the situation as cruel or dark. Falling between the two extremes, however, tends to invoke frustration, anger, and boredom.

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