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Monday
Aug182014

Life After Beth

Life After Beth
Directed by: Jeff Baena
Released on: August 15th, 2014 [LIMITED]
Grade: 4 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth tells the comedic-tragic teenage tale of a single child named Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) who went hiking one day, was bitten by a snake and died. (Snakes and teenage girls are always a scary combination.)

At first, Beth's death causes great grief in her father, Maury (John C. Reily), her mother, Geenie (Molly Shannon) and her boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan). Following the funeral, Zach begins to bond with Beth's parents, especially Maury. The two play chess together, talk about what they wished they had said to Beth when she was alive and they even share some wacky tobacky. Geenie gives Zach Beth's winter scarf, which he wears around his neck like a chain in the summertime.

The bond with Maury seems to move Zach toward recovery more than the bond Zach shares with his lightheaded parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) and dimwitted brother, Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler).

When the bond between Zach and Beth's parents soon fades, Zach becomes desperate. Zach cannot understand why the Slocums will not talk to him. So Zach does some, rather creepy, snooping around the Slocum house -- looking into their windows, banging on doors, yelling, etc. The Slocums are home but nobody answers. It seems they have a secret they do not want the neighbors to discover.

As it turns out, [SPOILER] Beth has risen from the grave. Hooray for Mom, Dad and Zach! Or is it a cause for celebration? This seems inexplicable. Maybe Beth is a zombie? Oh well, Zach and Beth's parents now have a second chance with their beloved.

Zach now says all the things he wished he had said to Beth and Beth responds the way teenage boys wished teenage girls responded to such sweet talk. But, like with most teenagers, the mind and body are constantly changing. For Beth they are changing in unimaginable ways...more so than the "normal" high school girl. As Beth becomes increasingly sweet, then aggressive (primarily with jealousy), Zach begins wondering if life would be better off if Beth were dead. The ideal girlfriend has become the psychotic bitc- ah, er, girlfriend.

To add to Zach's woes, suspicions and adolescent angst, it seems Beth is not the only one rising from the dead. Others around town have risen from the grave and they are hungry for some middle-class meat.

A cheeky satire on numerous things, such as postmortem or eternal fairy tale romances, idealized teenage love, and the resilience of the bourgeoisie to overcome threats to its comforts and joys with very little awareness and effort, Baena (who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees) has a keen yet low-key observant eye and pen for suburbia. There is humor, dread, bitter love and lousy music in Baena's suburbia. Todd Solondz may have a cinematic comrade in Baena.

(Writing of Solondz, Baena and Life After Beth, since the Slocums and Orfmans are Jewish, a look at this film through the prism of Jewish Studies may reveal another subtext to Life After Beth.)

With regard to the soundtrack used in Life After Beth, the film's metatrope that smooth jazz soothes zombies, in particular Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good," is dead-on hilarious. Baena's potshots at the banal music of the Babbitt/Angstrom class rings true, soft and clear. Baena and music supervisor Bruce Gilbert (not the same Bruce Gilbert as the ex-member of Wire) have created one of the smartest soundtracks of the year.

The film's one unfortunate soundtrack choice is the use of Brian Eno's politically charged, excellent song, "Needles in the Camel Eye" (which was better used in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine) during Beth and Zach's sexual encounter in a public park. Although Eno's album, Here Come the Warm Jets, which is where "Needles in the Camel's Eye" hails from, has some sexually charged themes in it, "Needles in the Camel's Eye" could have been used elsewhere in the film to better effect. For the sex scene, if we are sticking to Eno, a more apropos choice would have been Eno's "Here He Comes," "Driving Me Backwards" or "Sky Saw."

The one other unsettling aspect of Life After Beth is the random violence of Kyle. His gunning down of two elderly people -- one alive and one undead (he kills many more offscreen) -- jolts the dark humor of the film into something far more sinister and very unfunny. Perhaps it is a musical narrative pivot to undermine, or underscore, the more dominant "smooth jazz" trope in the film?

At any rate, judging by the screening I saw with about 20 other critics, it seems I thought it was funnier than most, if not everyone else. Aye, the only thing more annoying at being at a film screening where there is just one person laughing is when you are that one person laughing. Jarring, subversive, and enjoyable, Life After Beth does not fit into easy categorization or consumption. The film will no doubt have many detractors in the mainstream press, but for those looking for something different -- a la Solondz, Robert Altman or Luis Bunuel -- Life After Beth will rise above this somnambulistic summer of cinema.

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