'Life After Beth' Is A Scattered, Emotionally Gross Zombie Breakup Fable [Sundance 2014 Review]

Most everyone has been through a breakup that took place for a reason, but still left at least one person pining for a chance to do things over. Life After Beth seems as if it wants to be a zombie-filled fable exploring that situation. Dane DeHaan is Zach, whose relationship with Beth (Aubrey Plaza) dies along with her. But Zach gets a second chance with Beth when she returns home, seemingly alive — only to find that she is quickly losing whatever shreds of humanity she had left.

Not only does Life After Beth offer a confused and somewhat gross take on relationships, it wastes a great comic cast (Matthew Gray Gubler, Cheryl Hines, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, and Anna Kendrick) with comedy that is as sloppy as splattered brains.

Zach is devastated when Beth dies. It isn't just her unexpected passing, however, but the fact that she had dumped him just prior to the end of her life. In the wake of her passing, he's pining for a girl with whom he has no chance of ever making things right. When she returns, it seems like a gift, and despite many obvious problems (she's DEAD) Zach seizes the chance for a do-over in their relationship. The fact that Beth returns looking pretty healthy, and with a healthy sexual appetite, probably doesn't hurt.

So Zach gets his heart's desire, but then throws it away because she's dead and the monstrous side of her "condition" quickly takes over. So... wait a second. Why does he, the boring guy who got dumped, get the chance to reconcile and make things right, and also get a perfectly good reason for grabbing the "end of relationship" upper hand by dumping her afterward? Blech. An attempt to play off the late stage of their relationship as one colored by pure love also doesn't wash. (There are a couple more elements that play in as well, which I'll hold back rather than spoiling, but you get the picture.)

Furthermore, there's a really scattershot effect to many comic touches, which range from small and controlled to screwball, to outlandishly absurd. I Heart Huckabees writer Jeff Baena scripts and makes his directorial debut, and doesn't evidence much control over tone. There are some very funny and even touching family notes thanks in part to DeHaan's interaction with John C. Reilly, playing Beth's father. But Molly Shannon, as Beth's mom, often seems to be playing for an Abrahams and Zucker Brothers movie. Matthew Gray Gubler, playing Zach's hyper-militant brother, never seem to fit either.

Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza at least make a good play of their material, even when the relationship commentary is ugly. When Beth is starting to experience deep confusion over her current state of being, post-death, Plaza is really in control and hits the sweet spot between distressed, weird, and completely freaked out. As Beth gets closer to a state of pure "zombie," her performance gets more broad, as if to use goofy comedy to offset the potential for a literally funeral tone. While Plaza offers some irresistible energy, it isn't enough to outweigh the film's rotting core.

/Film rating: 4 out of 10