Life After Beth is full of good ideas. Which makes sense, since it comes from the brain of Jeff Baena, the co-writer of I Heart Huckabees (and real-life boyfriend of Aubrey Plaza, and I assume you have to be super weird in a really spectacular way to make that happen). However, none of the odd, interesting ideas actually go anywhere. And that’s what makes this movie so frustrating. It would be one thing if it were just plain bad, or uninspired; but instead it is just wasted potential, which, as any high school math teacher will tell you, is so much worse.
The first we see of Beth is after she has died, letting us know, right from the beginning, that this story is not about her. Instead, it is about her parents (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly) and her boyfriend Zach (the Green Goblin known as Dane DeHaan), brought together to mourn her death-by-snakebite. Following the funeral, Zach and the parents grieve and bond over late-night weed and chess games. That is, until Beth digs herself out of her grave and returns home, at which point her parents go into full lockdown, shutting Zach out, both literally and emotionally. The number one priority for them is to keep Beth locked inside their home, and fully ignorant of the recent events. She herself doesn’t remember anything that’s happened, and exists in a creepily dreamy state, indulging in her newfound loves: attics and smooth jazz, occasionally obsessing over a mysterious “test” she has to study for. When Zach finally gets wise to Beth’s resurrection and forces his way back in, he finds himself in any jilted boyfriend’s fantasy. With Beth having no memory of the days (weeks? months?) before her death, she has no idea that they were having troubles, that they had been on the verge of breaking up. Now, gifted a second chance, Zach is free to say all the things he never said, and have all the public sex they never had before. All, of course, while periodically checking in to make sure the only taste for human flesh his zombie girlfriend is developing is the euphemistic kind.
On paper (or screen, whatever), Life After Beth is an original, engaging story. Just writing that description of the movie made me want to give it another shot. In theory (and probably in pitch meetings), it’s a horror-comedy in the vein of Shaun of the Dead. It’s also a love story, a sweet exploration of second chances in love. And it’s a parable of trying to fit people into the preformed boxes we’ve laid out for them in our lives. In reality, though, this movie is none of those things. Not a single idea, once introduced, is followed to its end. The movie starts with a slow, mumblecorish beginning and you think “surely this will build to some great explosion.” But let me save you the future disappointment by disappointing you now: It will not. There is no build, so there is certainly no payoff. Zach doesn’t grow or learn, so much as he meanders and gets distracted (by, among other things, a maddeningly wasted Anna Kendrick, who appears pointlessly for about 4 minutes total). Beth’s entire character arc is limited to becoming less of a creepy porcelain doll and more of a brain-eater. And boy, does she do a fantastic job of that transformation, but a bloody, growling Aubrey Plaza does not a full movie make. If Life After Beth had not given us so much to hope for, it would not be so disappointing. But as is, it feels like a half-assed soft punch to an already rotted zombie-gut.