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.

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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

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February 6, 2013

Warm Bodies

Nicholas Hoult apropos of Shaun of the Dead’s marketing shows us what a proper ‘zom-rom-com’ looks like, and it looks much like any other rom-com.

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R (Hoult) is a hoodie-wearing slacker who lives at an abandoned airport, listens to his extensive vinyl collection on a private jet, slouches at a bar with his best friend (Robb Corddry), and from time to time shuffles into the city for some fresh human brains. As zombies are wont to do… Julie (Teresa Palmer) is the jaded daughter of General Grigio (John Malkovich), the hardliner entrusted with safeguarding the walled city. Sent into the dead zone with her boyfriend (Dave Franco) and best friend (Analeigh Tipton) to scavenge for medicine she’s ambushed by R’s pack, but he chooses not to eat her and classic rom-com structure develops. Will she love him when she finds out his secret is that he ate her previous boyfriend? And what exactly has changed in R that makes him capable of such human feelings?

So, how do you make zombies sexy? You don’t, you make them not zombies. A perfectly sound solution but you’d hope that someone of the calibre of writer/director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) would’ve gone deeper. Hoult’s voiceover is nicely sardonic, especially in his delightful scene-setting monologue, but if you’ve seen any episode of Dexter you’re wise to some of its tricks already. Corddry is damn good in support portraying seemingly impossible emotional ‘exhumation’, and Tipton has a wonderfully comic awkward exchange with Hoult in slacker shrugging. Palmer though struggles not to come off as simply blonde Bella Swann at critical moments… Ultimately Warm Bodies just cheats too much for its own good. Levine, in his first PG-13 outing, has to neuter the zombies’ appearance and behaviour, so that they don’t alienate with Romero-style bloody dismemberments of living human victims.

This is a difficult balancing act given the film’s brilliant innovative touch; that eating brains allows zombies to experience the memories of the human they’re munching on; powers the unlikely romance. Levine thus unveils a CGI version of Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army as Boneys, the bad zombies who always eat people, and in one instance attack in a sequence lifted from I, Robot. At a certain point though the featured zombies aren’t really zombies anymore; more people who are so very, very, very drunk that they can no longer remember with certainty their own names or where they live, and find it equally challenging to think of things to say and then articulate the words intelligibly. Montreal is brilliantly rendered as post-apocalyptic wasteland but this is just an amusing rom-com – the power of love is the ‘cure’ for ‘zombieism’…

It seems George Romero’s heroes instead of going in for head-shots should have just stood with a boom-box over their own heads blasting out Huey Lewis and the News.

2.5/5

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