Friday, January 24, 2014

Sundance ’14: Life After Beth

Teenagers and zombies both have bad skin and smell like feet.  However, the similarities end with the risen dead’s affinity for smooth jazz.  At least, that is how the zombie apocalypse rolls in Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth, which screens today during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Zach Orfman was always inclined to be mopey, but the death of his out-of-his-league girlfriend Beth Slocum really has him down. He is especially anguished because their final awkward days of couplehood teetered on the brink of splitsville.  Seeking comfort in proximity, Orfman starts spending time with Slocum’s parents, Maury and Geenie, who also seem to take consolation from his presence.  Then one day they freeze him out and close off their entire house to the outside world.

Eventually, Orfman discovers they are harboring the “resurrected” Slocum, who has no memories of her fatal hiking misadventure.  The Slocums are determined to keep it that way.  They allow Orfman to renew their relationship, but insist he never tell her about her death or share the happy news with the rest of the world. It is all good for a few days, until certain changes start manifesting in Slocum. For instance, her skin is drier and her behavior is more aggressive. We also get hints she might not be the only zombie who came back.

Writer-director Baena dexterously keeps the zombie apocalypse lurking just outside our field of vision, focusing instead on the increasingly problematic relationship between Orfman and Slocum. He also stays true to the logical necessities of zombie movies in the redemptive third act climax.  However, the humor in After definitely leans toward the mild chuckle end of the spectrum.

Aubrey Plaza is the perfect choice for Slocum, jumping into the undead teenager angst and zombie gore with both feet.  In contrast, Dane DeHaan’s Orfman is a leaden presence, stuck on moody brooding throughout the film. He might be convincingly nebbish, but it is impossible to believe someone with this kind of dead fish charisma could attract the reasonably popular Slocum. While Paul Reiser (his second dad role in a Sundance film this year) and Cheryl Hines are largely wasted as Orfman’s parents, John C. Reilly’s shtick suits Maury Slocum rather well.

Life After Beth is pleasant enough, but it is quite like scores of previous teenager horror mash-ups thematically and stylistically. While it earns originality points down the stretch, Plaza and Reilly could have used some help carrying it to that point. Tightly executed but low in calories, Life After Beth will only serve as a light snack for genre fans when it screens today (1/24) in Park City, as a selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.