At this point, "zombie comedy" has become a movie genre in its own right, thanks to films like Shaun of the Dead and Fido. And the latest addition is Life After Beth, about a young man whose dead girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) comes back. Alas, Beth is not quite funny enough, or clever enough, to stand out from the zombie herd.
Dane DeHaan plays Zach, a somewhat troubled young guy, whose troubles include the fact that his girlfriend Beth (Plaza) has died. In the wake of this tragedy, he starts spending a lot of time with Beth's father Maury (John C. Reilly, absolutely killing it), as they bond over their shared loss. But when Beth comes back, her boyfriend and her father clash over how to handle this miracle, and it turns out badly for all concerned.
There are a lot of cool, weird touches in this movie — like the fact that the resurrected Beth has developed a love for the most heinous Smooth Jazz music imaginable. And some of the scenes between Zach and Beth, where they try awkwardly to resume their relationship.
But there are a couple of problems that bring the film down quite a bit. First of all, a lot of the humor falls super flat — the movie is in love with the idea of the undead girlfriend, but doesn't seem to know how to develop it any further. It's just one joke, over and over. There's a lot of random weirdness (like the "Smooth Jazz" thing, and Zach's gun-nut security guard brother), but the world doesn't feel exaggerated or weird enough, in general, for this to feel like a full-blown work of gonzo satire.
And that sort of leads to the other problem — I'm not sure what, exactly, this movie is about. Maybe the idea of not being able to let go of a dead loved one? Romantic obsession? The movie keeps changing its mind about what all of this is a metaphor for, and that compounds the problem of the generally unfunny humor. Zach, too, doesn't quite make for a likable enough protagonist for us to want to follow him through this increasingly nasty situation.
Writer/director Jeff Baena seems to be going for a dry "Sundance quirky misanthropic comedy" style of humor — there are a ton of static shots where a person is standing still in the foreground of the shot while something crazy and frenetic rolls past in the background. And the delivery of the lines is very deadpan and slackery. But you have to wonder if this might have worked better if it had been less Sundancey and more just straight-up funny.
The best part of the movie is the shifting relationship between Zach and Maury — the two guys who both feel the loss of Beth and then can't agree on what to do when she comes back. The scenes of the two men sharing vulnerability, and then fighting over how best to keep Beth safe and happy, are the heart of the film and the most memorable part.
But Beth herself is just sort of a shambling plot device, despite Plaza's valiant efforts to get some real comedy and pathos out of Beth's situation. Beth is whatever each scene needs her to be, without much consistency or story logic. (Or much personality, either.)
And given that the movie is named after Beth and her return from the dead is the linchpin of the story, the inability to give Beth anything interesting to do is a a key flaw. It's what prevents this movie from being a great zombie comedy, and a memorable relationship story.