'Life After Beth' is World War Zach

Matt Pais movie review: 'Life After Beth'

The "Life After Beth" star talks to RedEye's Matt Pais on the red carpet at Sundance.

*** (out of four)

No, a loved one returning to your house as a zombie isn’t ideal. Then again, as Maury (John C. Reilly) says to Zach (Dane DeHaan) after Maury’s daughter/Zach’s girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) arrives from the grave, “She’s back; who cares why?”

Written and directed by “I Heart Huckabees” co-writer Jeff Baena, “Life After Beth” maintains that light, tilted perspective throughout 83 minutes that wouldn’t be ill-served by being seen at midnight, a few beers in. Even if you see it mid-day and sober, it’s still a funny and weird showcase for DeHaan’s (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) effortless appeal and a chance for Plaza to go bonkers, CGI-free.

After the loss of his girlfriend, Zach at first takes comfort in hanging with Beth’s parents—a scene of him getting high with Maury is smartly downplayed, coming off as a bonding moment instead of a derivative lunge at laughs. Then Beth returns and Zach’s emotions are all over the place; should he tell her that she died or just savor a chance to say things he never said and be close to the woman he loves? Even if she now bizarrely prefers attics and smooth jazz and gradually demonstrates certain zombie-like traits. “I want to eat your face off” is far from the worst sweet-talking in relationship history.

For no reason, it takes a long time for anyone in “Life After Beth” to recognize the warning signs that a zombie apocalypse may be afoot. It’s like “Shaun of the Dead” if the characters’ obliviousness was meaningless. The film takes too long to really take off, likely a function of a limited budget and narrow focus on a few people instead of citywide mayhem. The latter isn’t always better, but this time added crazy would’ve helped.

Not that I minded much. “Life After Beth” seeks a tweaked kind of closure while recognizing that moving forward never quite feels normal in the first place. As Zach’s old friend, Anna Kendrick takes what could have been a contrived part and creates a few charming, quirky scenes that match perfectly with the movie’s offbeat (and minimally violent) tone. Her involvement: always a plus.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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