Life After Beth (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

Zack Orfman (Dane DeHaan) is grieving. His girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) was recently bitten by a snake, and died. They had been going through a rough patch at the time, were maybe even breaking up. The reason she had been hiking alone was that whenever she had asked him to come along, he had refused. There were words unsaid, deeds undone. With Beth now buried, life goes on as normal for almost everyone else, but not yet for Zack. Alienated from his family’s suburban middle-class domestic preoccupations, he gravitates toward Beth’s parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), who share his persistent, pervasive sense of loss.

The directorial debut of Jeff Baena (who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees), Life After Beth observes this sadness, and the odd behaviours that it produces, from an absurdist distance, converting tragedy to sly comedy. But then something truly absurd happens, as Beth inexplicably returns from the dead, along with many others of the recently – and not so recently – departed, and Zack finds his unresolved issues with his ex taking on monstrously real proportions. Zack’s joy turns gradually to horror, as the girl he once loved seems somehow different now – if not for the bad breath, necrotising flesh and violent mood swings, then for the sudden interest in smooth jazz, mud-spattered furnishings and attics. Now Zack’s childhood friend Erica (Anna Kendrick) seems so much more attractive – but first our lovesick hero must find closure and and let Beth take a(nother) hike.

There are now so many movies in the zombie genre that even its sub-branches suffer from overcrowding and overkill – and where once the phrase rom-zom-com held the promise of something witty and new, it now comes with much the same stench of rot. So it is a relief to report that Life After Beth is not a rehash of Return of the Living Dead 3, Boy East Girl or Warm Bodies, and is not even really a zombie film at all (despite Zack’s conviction – prejudicial, it turns out – that the Slocums’ Haitian maid is the root of the undead plague). Indeed, Beth’s erratic, at times aggressive conduct seems to be prescribed more by Zack’s expectations and conflicted emotional attitudes than by any Romero-esque lore.

With its focus on the ghosts of loved ones that stubbornly haunt the consciousness of those left behind, Life After Beth plays like a comedy version of The Returned (whether Robin Campillo’s 2004 feature or the 2012 TV series that it inspired) – and it also has not a little in common with Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990). Yet as Baena brings the plot to its thoroughly surreal climax, there is a blurring of the banal and the apocalyptic that is all his own. Pain, loss and eventual recovery may be the theme, but this is good grief.

Anton Bitel