Monday, August 18, 2014

Life After Beth (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Jeff Baena


Life After Beth is another in a string of projects headed by Aubrey Plaza in an effort to streamline the comedienne's transition from television's hit show Parks and Recreation to film stardom. Plaza is beautiful and legitimately funny, and appears to have more talent in a more variety of ways then most actresses working in major films. But she's yet to show she can really carry a film. To be fair, I don't mean to argue that she can't do it, she just hasn't been able to do it yet, and it should be said that none of the material she's been given has really been anything that really gives her much of a fair shot. Films like Safety Not Guaranteed and The To-Do List are lightweight fare, sure, but both films kind of left her on an island, to find character beyond what's on the page. About Alex gave Plaza the most adult, actor-ly role she's ever had, but it felt too much like she was playing against her own comedic persona - she was trying to branch away from the act that people like to see her perform. Life After Beth is the best lead role she's ever received - it allows her to explore her own deadpan, zombiefied delivery while playing an actual zombie. It's a brilliant piece of casting. And yet, none of the other decisions made by the first-time director Jeff Baena seem as inspired as that one.

Baena's big film credit before Life After Beth is being a co-writer with David O. Russell on the tragically underrated I Heart Huckabees. Considering Russell's numerous battles to hog all writing credit on nearly every single project he films, the fact that he was willing to share with Baena means that Baena must have had a strong influence on one of the more unique screenplays produced that decade. Life After Beth is, admittedly, a very clever spin on zombie films, being promoted in Plaza's numerous television appearances as a "zom-rom-com", but the fusion of genre feels totally flat to me. The film is never really romantic and it's funny moments feel slight in quantity and quality; and it doesn't really become much of a zombie film till well into the movie's second act. There's too much meandering where it seems like the film's having trouble trying to figure out what it wants to do. Simply said, this feels a lot like a debut effort. Comparing may seem silly, but just for the sake of it: David O. Russell's films often feel sloppy and meandering - it's kind of become his style - but there's never a debate about whether or not the film is in his control. Baena's film feels a bit too thoughtless right now, the shots are without very much in the way of exploration - almost as if the actual shooting of it was an obligation he persevered through to get to the finished product.

Plaza plays Beth Slocum, a young woman recently discovered dead from a supposed snake bite. Beth's boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane Dehaan), is particularly bereaved, despondent over things he wished he had told Beth before she died. Zach is consoled by Beth's warm parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), who do their best to help Zach understand that it's better to mourn peacefully than dwell on the things you could have done. At home, Zach's parents Noah (Paul Reiser) and Judy (Cheryl Hines), encourage him to move on from Beth. Judy seems especially eager for him to meet up with the daughter of a close friend. Zach's older brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler) seems completely oblivious to Zach's pain, and while the entire Orfman family seems particularly bad at dealing with Zach's mourning, Kyle's insensitivity seems especially cruel. No wonder Zach often finds himself wandering back to the home of the Slocums, to play chess with Maury and sleuth through Beth's belongings with Geenie. The Slocums are the only ones who share his level of misery, but when they suddenly begin ignoring Zack's phone calls and turning him away at their front door, he begins to think that something is up.

While snooping around their house one day, he sees Beth, in the flesh, wandering inside. Incensed, Zach bursts in and demands to know why he was so cruelly pranked. The Slocums try to explain, while Beth seems completely clueless to Zach's rantings, causing Zach to storm out in a fit. When Zach visits Beth's grave site, he sees only a giant hole in the ground in front of her tombstone. He returns to the Slocum's where Maury reveals that Beth was, in fact, dead, but now she is no longer, and he has no explanation. Beth doesn't realize that she's a dead person and has no recollection of her resurrection. She sees life as totally normal, except that she has the urge to sleep in the attic and is occasionally overcome with violent urges that can only be soothed by smooth jazz. Zach is conflicted about whether or not to explain to Beth that she's not really the living human being that she thinks she is. Maury wants nothing of it, wanting to keep the status quo while never letting Beth leave the house. Beth's outburst start becoming more and more frequent, and as a new crop of corpses start rising out of the ground and terrorizing the neighborhood, Zach and the Slocums start having more and more trouble trying to avoid that anything is wrong with Beth.

Life After Beth sets itself up for many opportunities, but delivers on very few of them. Concepts are brought up seemingly just because, and then disregarded. Consider the film's issues with an antagonist; every time the film sets up a character to be an obstacle for Zach, the possibility fizzles. First Kyle is shown to be a serious impediment to Zach's goals to make things work with Beth, but that goes nowhere. Then Maury, with his insistence on keeping Beth ignorant of her condition, becomes a real bind in the script, but that subplot is essentially forgotten as well. It makes you wonder if there's a longer cut of this film that gave all these characters and their roles more substance. There seems to be an odd comment on the Jewish community in the film's unnamed neighborhood (Baena is from Miami, which comes with a highly influential Jewish population, but this film is definitely shot in Los Angeles), but it's hard to put your finger on exactly what it's supposed to be. This aspect of the film leads to a cameo from Anna Kendrick which essentially wastes one of the film industry's best personalities with a meaningless role. This all culminates in an ending with obvious allusions to The Graduate but how it's supposed to connect to everything that we've seen before, I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps there are certain details that I missed, but I felt like there were certain inside jokes that you needed to know that I just wasn't included in.

While watching, I felt like the film seemed limited by budget restrictions. There are certain world-building details that seemed short-changed, but perhaps I'm being presumptuous. Either way, the film simply isn't following much of a straight line outside of it's "romantic comedy with zombies" gimmick. Any semblances of enjoyment that I got out of this film comes out of its performances. As two sets of doting, over-protective parents, Reilly, Shannon, Reiser and Hines all give charming, funny performances in a variety of ways. Reilly in particular is strong; he's the only actor in this film with a lot of experience finding sincerity in a screenplay filled with ridiculousness. As a vehicle for Plaza, I've never seen the actress more game for a part. She accepts the physicality of the role and even finds comedic beats where it seems to me like they'd be hard to find. I just wish this performance could have been in a better film. Life After Beth is a high concept without a screenplay, tailor-made to produce a great trailer but without enough substance to propel a complete, feature-length film; even one that's just an hour and a half long. Considering its cast, it's safe to say that the film could have ended up being a lot worse, but just thinking a film worse than this leaves me dreaming of a zombie apocalypse.

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