Life After Beth starts out as a cracked, comical take on Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Zach (Dane DeHaan) is a young man mourning the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza). At home, his parents patronize him and his older brother (a funny Matthew Gray Gubler) bullies him, so he starts spending time with the late girl’s family (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon). Being with them make him feel closer to Beth, even though they seem to be acting fairly calmly in light of such a calamity.
Then one night, during one of Zach’s visits, Beth pops up in her bedroom, looking exactly as she did the last time he saw her. Zach understandably freaks out; her parents try to get him to calm down; and Beth has no idea who he is, until suddenly she remembers everything and becomes his girlfriend again.
The best stuff comes early in Life After Beth, which was written and directed by Jeff Baena in a natural style that makes the weirdness more believable. Zach is so befuddled by Beth’s reappearance, he doesn’t notice the curious events that are starting to take place all around town (the first one, a man in a business suit running as fast as he can down the street at night, is so quick that even viewers might miss it).
But her parents go on as if nothing had happened, with a few exceptions: They forbid Beth from going out during the day, for example, with no explanation. In one scene, Zach reads the audience’s mind by thinking she could be a zombie (“You don’t want to eat me, do you?” he asks). DeHaan’s natural brooding persona grounds what could have been a silly picture with an emotional reality — you feel for him — and the otherwordliness Plaza has always displayed finally gets puts to full use here. To say how would spoil the fun.
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Unfortunately, Life After Beth starts feeling more conventional the wilder and darker it gets, and the laughs become more sparse as the movie winds to its bizarre and unsatisfying conclusion. It becomes strange for strangeness’ sake. Here’s an example of a film that was borne out of a great idea but couldn’t stick the landing.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick.
Writer-director: Jeff Baena.
An A24 Studios release. Running time: 89 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief nudity, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.