It’s incredible to think that in the short 10 years since the release of “Shaun of the Dead,” the zombie comedy has practically become its own subgenre, even spawning several “rom-zom-coms” (romantic zombie comedies, a term coined during the marketing for that film) in the process. But while Edgar Wright’s 2004 debut was a blisteringly funny homage to zombie movies, there’s yet to be another film that even comes close to matching its genre-bending wit and sense of fun. Which brings me to “Life After Beth,” the latest rom-zom-com to try and fail at duplicating that success. Surprisingly dull and unfunny for the talent involved, “Life After Beth” is a dead-on-arrival comedy that’s just as much in need of some brains as its title character.
Dane DeHaan stars as Zach, a gloomy teenager mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), after she was killed by a snakebite while hiking alone in the woods. Depressed and seeking comfort from Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), Zach is offended when the couple suddenly cuts him off without so much as an explanation. So when Zach goes to their house looking for answers, he’s shocked to discover that Beth is very much alive, although without any memory of the past few days. While they’re not exactly sure how it happened (the possibility of a Jesus-like resurrection is debated), the Slocums are just happy to have their daughter back, and they’re willing to let Zach continue to see her if he promises to keep Beth’s return from the grave a secret. But as Zach attempts to rekindle their relationship, he can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right with her.
Unfortunately, there’s not much right with the movie either. This is basically a one-joke premise that’s been stretched (and stretched and stretched) to feature length, and even at a snappy 91 minutes, the seams start to show by the midway mark. Though its premise is certainly ripe for comedy, the film is so aimless and poorly executed that it never really finds its voice, let alone one that’s even remotely funny. Writer/director Jeff Baena spends the first 20 minutes following Zach around as he sulks about the loss of his girlfriend when he could have been doing far more constructive things with that time, like developing the characters. For instance, because the movie begins after Beth’s death has already occurred, the audience never gets an idea of what she was like prior to her zombification, and that would have gone a long way in providing some context to her bizarre, post-death behavior.
Kudos to Aubrey Plaza for completely throwing herself into the role, because it’s her committed performance (balancing the sweet and sour sides of Beth’s combating personalities) that prevents the film from being any worse. John C. Reilly also earns a few chuckles as Beth’s overprotective father, but the rest of the cast is horribly wasted, especially Dane DeHaan, whose character is so annoying that you wish Beth would just eat him already and put the movie out of its misery. From the embarrassing attempts at dark humor, to the idiotic and unexplained development of a full-on zombie apocalypse in the final act, “Life After Beth” is so bad that it’s hard to believe it was written by the same guy who co-wrote David O. Russell’s underrated existential comedy, “I Heart Huckabees.” That film is way more out there than “Life After Beth,” but at least it has clear direction and jokes that work, instead of just wandering around like a mindless zombie hoping to skate by on its clever title.