Talking Movies

October 1, 2014

Life After Beth

Dane DeHaan had never made a comedy before this film. I’m not sure he still hasn’t made a comedy after starring in Life After Beth.

life-after-beth-beth-and-zach

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is inconsolable with grief after his girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while on a solo hike in the hills. Despite the best efforts of his abrasive security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), and his helicopter parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser), nothing can shake him out of his gloom. Instead he spends his time with Beth’s parents, playing chess and smoking weed with Maury (John C Reilly), and going thru Beth’s clothes with Geenie (Molly Shannon). So far so Moonlight Mile. But when the Slocums’ Haitian maid Pearline (Eva La Dare) flees town, it’s not long before a horde of zombies appears, heralded by a returned Beth – who has no memory of dying, and is now super-strong, insanely jealous of Zach’s reappeared childhood friend Erica (Anna Kendrick), and increasingly hungry…

Warm Bodies approached the conundrum of how you make a romantic comedy with zombies by making the zombies not zombies. Life After Beth keeps the zombies as zombies and instead ditches the romantic comedy aspect. Which can’t be intentional, can it? There are so many good actors onboard that you feel something has gone disastrously wrong. Reiser is more likeable than I’ve ever seen him, and Gubler is fantastically obnoxious. But the lead performances don’t match them. Plaza presumably signed on for eating people and blowing up a lifeguard post, but, while she has fun with the physical shtick, the role mutes her comedic grouchiness. DeHaan’s everyman is ill-served by the puzzling script. What should be deadpan just turns out blank. Reacting blankly to absurd situations does not by itself provide comedy, there does need to be jokes in addition.

Writer/director Jeff Baena co-wrote I Heart Huckabees which makes it all the more baffling what the hell went wrong because he’s not a man short of comedic invention. Technically everyone is at the top of their game. Jay Hunter, who was the DP for Joss Whedon’s crisply monochrome Much Ado About Nothing, bathes this gated community in a sunlight wonderfully inapt for a zombie horror; again displaying flair on a shoestring. Kudos must also go to the casting directors (Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin) who realised that with the right haircut DeHaan and Gubler are perfect as brothers. But technical competence and solid acting can only get you so far. By the end when a gratuitously naked female zombie appears you’re not sure if it’s a ham-fisted nod to Re-Animator, or a stunt to arouse the audience from its slumber.

Life After Beth is a zom-rom-com that’s played so straight that it ends up a romantic drama about a bad break-up and an unstable ex-girlfriend; now with added zombies.

1/5

September 1, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer would be the best romantic comedy of the year but for the small fact that it’s really the perfect anti-romantic comedy.

It casually dispenses with the great mind-numbing cliché of romantic comedies whereby a secret comes to light in the second act that scuppers the relationship until a grand romantic gesture is made in the third act by one of the sundered lovers which leads to a happy ever after reconciliation, and pass the sick-bucket please. Here, thanks to a sublimely fractured chronology, we see office assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and greeting card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) break up (because Summer’s just not happy anymore, not because of some contrived plot device) before we’ve even seen them get together as a couple. Not of course that Summer ever admits to herself or Tom that they are a couple. A refreshing change from rom-coms featuring the male with commitment issues here we have the (common in real-life but scarce on the ground in movies) female with terminological issues: ‘boyfriend’ is out, it’s more ‘the guy I’m seeing’, or ‘the guy I’m sorta seeing’, or ‘this guy I’m hanging with, I may possibly start seeing in the future, I don’t really know…’

Events occur mostly chronologically but with jumps forwards and backward to replay events so that we get an emotional oomph from scenes we thought we understand playing differently in context, like Summer being bored by Tom’s quirky humour which it transpires is a riff she had started earlier. It is important to note that this film is not a non-stop laugh marathon, but it is always warm, and filled with touches that would not look out of place in Annie Hall; such as an extended split-screen sequence depicting Tom’s expectations of a party hosted by Summer versus reality, a sparingly used droll narrator, Tom’s lists of Summer’s traits that he adores being identical to his post-breakup list of Summer’s traits that he despises, and Tom’s friends desperately calling in his 12 year old sister Rachel (wise beyond her years, of course) for an intervention to stop his distraught crockery-smashing.

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber penned Pink Panther 2 and this is extremely clever atonement because (500) Days is a systematic deconstruction of the tropes of rom-coms which annihilates the concept of idealised soul-mate romance they perpetuate. Zooey Deschanel is luminous when she needs to be but her character is also deeply flawed, as indeed is the always excellent Gordon-Levitt, whose everyman Tom has settled for second-best in life and thus treats Summer as a Hollywood style ticket to redemption. The ending manages to be hilarious, realistic and life-affirming while being deeply subversive of the genre. If you’re sick of the Sandra Bullock rom-com conveyor belt then you should catch Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt being both charming and emotionally realistic and soak up the feel-good factor of an indie rom-com with the most joyous musical number since Enchanted’s Central Park extravanganza.

4/5

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