Genre mashups — the science-fiction western or horror comedy — are commonplace these days. But the danger of such genre-bending comes when a filmmaker hits an unyielding brick wall. Jeff Baena’s “Life After Beth” hits that wall.
This is a zombie romance —some call it a “zom-rom” —that never quite makes sense in either genre and the two fit together awkwardly. However, Dane DeHaan, recently quite effective in “Kill Your Darlings” opposite Daniel Radcliffe, almost pulls the whole thing together on the strength of his performance alone.
Yet other than giving emotional vulnerability to a young man who discovers his girlfriend has become something out of a cheesy horror flick, DeHaan can’t salvage a concept that aims for hipness but doesn’t do the meticulous work in story, tone and character necessary to pull off such genre bending.
DeHaan is Zach, a high-schooler whose girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snake bite while hiking. Grief and regret overwhelm him especially since at the time of her death the couple was about to break-up. So much was left unsaid.
He clings with emotional greediness to Beth’s equally devastated parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon). Beth’s mom gives Zach her wool scarf, which he wears all the time despite the fact it’s summer.
When the Slocums stop answering the door though, Zach grows alarmed and stalks their home. Absolutely certain he has seen Beth inside, he lays siege so forcefully that his angry brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), a community security officer, pulls a gun on his own sibling.
The Slocums eventually relent and let Zach in on their embarrassing and troubling secret: Beth has returned. Only how is this possible? She has no memory of dying or the fact she was about to split from Zach. And how to explain that gaping hole at her graveside in the cemetery?
Beth must be a zombie.
Initially there’s little evidence of this although Zach is careful to monitor her eating habits. He’s so overjoyed at getting a second chance with Beth to say and do all the things he thought no longer possible that he tries to ignore certain signs.
Like the fact her strength is growing exponentially even as her body seems to be … well, there’s no polite term for rotting, is there?
This sounds like material for comedy. Imagine what Mel Brooks would do with it! In fact, Baena, a young writer-director making his directing debut — he wrote “I ♥︎ Huckabees” with David O. Russell — does strain for laughs in the early going.
But he clearly wants to explore the divided loyalties within a young man getting his most fervent wish, the return of his beloved, only to confront a host of issues a relationship with a zombie, not to mention the zombie’s perplexed parents, entails.
The move veers more “zom” than “rom” with a third act that disintegrates more rapidly than those decomposing corpses. Soon this entire California (or so it appears) town experiences a zombie resurrection where dead grandparents show up for a long-delayed visit. Again you can’t help thinking how, say, the Monty Python gang might deal with this.
In the twilight of the divide between zom and rom though the film touches on the dramatically fresh subject of how one deals with an “other.” Especially an “other” that was once dearly beloved. Here you get an inkling of the kind of movie Baena might have had in mind before losing control.
Three people, the Slocums and Zach, all grasp the situation but advocate different approaches. All are guided by love rather than fear. Beth meanwhile is oblivious to her delicate condition, which Zach staunchly believes she needs to understand.
So you do get an interesting interlude of grief merging into love and back into a more profound grief before a zombie invasion like you’d see in a cable TV series.
One grace note of humor comes in the zombies having a fatal weakness for smooth jazz, which drives all the humans crazier than the fact of a dead grandfather demanding food.
Plaza is a genuine comic talent but “Beth” shows how this talent can be mishandled. While very much in her element in the early stages of resurrection, the slapstick of her transition into herky-jerky locomotion and punching holes in walls wins the wrong kind of laughs.
Along with DeHaan, Reilly and Shannon are spot-on as parents out of their or anybody else’s depth. Zach’s parents, well played by a befuddled Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines, interpret their younger son’s increasingly bizarre behavior as the ravages of intense grief.
Meanwhile that brother goes berserk in his own way as the zombie invasion unleashes his own most fervent desire to use that Desert Eagle pistol of his on human — well, previously human— targets.
“Beth” falls victim to a common disease among aspiring filmmakers. Call it the Sundance Syndrome.
It’s no secret that certain kinds of edgy or darkly comic films, some bending genres with others tackling subjects outside the interests of mainstream cinema, appeal to festival programmers.
Sure enough, “Beth” debuted in dramatic competition in Park City this year and good for that. But it is also no secret that the films in dramatic competition are among the weakest in the entire festival.
In the strain to appeal to Sundance programmers’ notions of edgy, impressionable young filmmakers make Park City films rather than solid indie films.
An independent filmmaker can nowadays, given the acclaim Sundance films often get, round up a cast as good as this one. So “Beth” has all the right ingredients but with a novice chef who gets the proportions all wrong, emphasizing cartoon laughs over insight and “edge” over nuance.
The final though little talked about non-secret of Sundance is that few such films ever get picked up for theatrical distribution. “Beth” did so and let’s see how the film fares in a limited release following its DirectTV premiere last month.
Like a poor girl rising from the grave to re-enter normal life, “Beth” may come off as too disfigured for acceptance even among adventurous moviegoers.
Opens August 15, 2014 (A24)
Production Company: StarStream Entertainment, Abbolita Productions, American Zoetrope
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick
Director/screenwriter: Jeff Baena
Producers: Liz Destro, Michael Zakin
Executive producers: Kim Leadford, Tim Nye, Charles Bonan, Elizabeth Stillwell, Chris Herghelegiu, Brent Romagnolo, Courtney Kivowitz, Brian Young, Wendy Benge
Director of photography: Jay Hunter
Production designer: Michael Grasley
Costume designer: Negar Ali Kline
Editor: Colin Patton
No rating, 91 minutes