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Dustin Putman

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Life After Beth  (2014)
3 Stars
Directed by Jeff Baena.
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Eva La Dare, Thomas McDonell, Alia Shawkat, Allan McLeod, Paul Weitz, Michelle Azar, Jim O'Heir, Garry Marshall.
2014 – 87 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, violence, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 6, 2014.
Following in the illustrious footsteps of its tonally similar cousin, 2013's "Warm Bodies," "Life After Beth" finds a fresh angle from which to tackle the walking-dead subgenre. Star Aubrey Plaza has labeled it a "rom-com-zom-dram" in interviews, and said description is decidedly succinct. Cloaking tragedy in a veil of resonant humor without compromising the truth of its thematic eulogy to love and loss, the film runs the gamut of emotions. It's droll. It's mournful. It's adorable, and surreal, and eerily burrows its way under the viewer's skin. There is a lot to be said of human relationships because they are such universal parts of life. Even when they are seemingly unbreakable, they are fragile, the limited timeframe of one's very existence an inescapable fact of living. "Life After Beth" broaches this sorrowful notion with an impassioned sensitivity—and a few missing limbs.

When 21-year-old Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies suddenly and unexpectedly from a snake bite while out hiking, boyfriend Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) is understandably heartbroken. They were having problems prior to the accident and might have even been headed for a break-up, but now none of that matters and he is left only with the knowledge of everything he wanted to say to her but never got the chance. While dropping by to see her grieving parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon) a few days after the funeral, he is left utterly shocked when he catches a split-second glimpse through the window of his girlfriend walking around inside. Sure enough, Beth has inexplicably climbed out of her grave and returned to her home. She has no recollection of what happened, or that she is deceased, or even that she and Zach were having issues, but she does insist she has to study for a big test coming up. Maury and Geenie deem it a resurrection and urge Zach to keep mum. He knows logically that this situation can only end badly, especially as the days go by and Beth starts to smell, decompose and experience fits of rage and memory loss. He also knows that this is his one shot at a second chance with the girl he loves.

The offbeat, warm-hearted directorial debut of screenwriter Jeff Baena (2004's "I ♥ Huckabees"), "Life After Beth" reimagines what it might be like if a corpse really did come back from the dead. Beth is not a walking, stalking, cannibalistic zombie right off the bat, and, with the exception of a few disconnected brain synapses, initially appears to be just as she was before the accident. She is confused why her parents insist she not leave the house until the sun goes down ("Hiking at night? How is that safer?" she asks with a pout), but seems to be more plugged in than ever to her relationship with Zach. As time goes on, however, she is stricken with nasty mood swings, increased strength and a fear of being left alone. She's hungry—very hungry—but regular food cannot quite satiate her. The light in Beth's eyes is starting to dim, and Zach is quick to see it. Curiously, something else is afoot around town. Acquaintances whom he hasn't seen in years are showing back up, a little out of sorts but apparently harmless (at least at first). If an apocalypse is under way, it's only partially what George A. Romero had in mind back in 1968.

For someone faced with an unimaginable occurrence, Zach is the sanest person in sight. He is aware that Beth's return goes against the natural order, but there is such pain and regret connected to what happened to her and how they ended things that it feels at first like a miracle that he has been given more time with her. Dane DeHaan (2014's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2") beautifully conveys the war of feelings inside Zach, as well as the frustration that comes with having a family who collectively do not "get" him. As parents Judy and Noah and obnoxious older security guard brother Kyle, Cheryl Hines (2009's "The Ugly Truth"), Paul Reiser (2001's "One Night at McCool's") and Matthew Gray Gubler (2009's "(500) Days of Summer") are stuck in the parts of thankless caricatures. For a film as otherwise astutely written as this one, the decision to go so broadly with these three strikes a dishonest balance with the rest of the script. As Beth's well-meaning, in-denial parents Maury and Geenie, John C. Reilly (2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy") and Molly Shannon (2013's "Scary Movie 5") provide laughs and pathos as they refuse to see the potential calamity in front of them. Their love for their only child wins out over logic, and they may end up having to pay an even bigger price for the selfish decisions they make.

In what is surely one of the year's standout performances, Aubrey Plaza (2013's "The To Do List") is tremendous as the ill-fated title character. Plaza's usual straight-faced, deadpan persona is nowhere to be found here, and all that the viewer sees in its place is Beth, full of energetic vitality on the outside and yet unavoidably falling apart in every way possible. Building layer upon layer to an extraordinarily unorthodox role, the actress displays a physical and dramatic dexterity that proves increasingly, poignantly haunting. If Beth symbolizes dreams left unfulfilled, then Anna Kendrick's (2013's "Drinking Buddies") Erica Wexler—the daughter of Zach's mom's longtime gal pal—epitomizes the chance for hope and renewal in the face of despair. It isn't that she is a savior—treating her as such for the purposes of shoehorning the plot to a tidy conclusion would have been disappointing, to say the least—but she does appear midway through as someone who connects to Zach on a level that no one else does. No one but Beth, that is, and who's to say his image of her wasn't skewed and idealized after her passing? Kendrick makes an impact with limited screen time, eliciting an irresistible sweetness that is crucial to the narrative's third act and closing moments.

When Beth begins experiencing mental breaks from reality, it is the easy-listening sounds of smooth jazz on the radio that help to soothe her. What could have been a throwaway joke instead makes perfect sense. Beth's whole world as she knows it is about to leave her all over again, and if you were in her position, wouldn't a gentle harmony of saxophone, piano and synthesizers hit just the right spot? When Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" fills the soundtrack in a key scene near the end, the juxtaposition between this innocuously cheery tune and the harsh finality of the subject matter is an ingenious directorial touch not easily forgotten. "Life After Beth" skimps a little on the particulars of what is going on when the world, for a brief, mysterious blip, comes unhinged, but the love story at its center is both original and deeply moving. After all, not every movie romance involves the stakes and urgency that a fast-deteriorating cadaver brings to the equation.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman