Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Life After Beth vs. About Alex, two post-adolescent tragi-comedies featuring Aubrey Plaza.
PremiseAubrey Plaza has had quite a year. The seemingly ubiquitous small-screen starlet reprised her role as Parks and Recreation‘s April Ludgate for a sixth straight season (the show, it was recently announced, will come to a finish in 2015). Earlier this year, two of the actress’ starring feature films, Life After Beth and About Alex, premiered at prestigious festivals (Sundance and Tribeca, respectively). Life After Beth finds Plaza in the titular role as a young woman cut down in her prime. Her boyfriend Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) visits her grave one day to find it an empty hole in the ground. Beth has returned from the dead. He repeatedly asks her, “Do you want to eat me?”—a not-so-subtle nod to ’80s zombie-slasher films. All seems well; that is, until Beth’s real thirst for blood comes to light. Plaza takes an ensemble approach in About Alex. She stars as a close friend of Alex (Jason Ritter), whose recent suicide attempt reunites his six college friends in a weekend of intervention and romance. It’s voyeuristic, sexy, and a little bit poignant. The two films offer humorous portraits of millennial relationships, but About Alex seems the most at risk to fall into cliché (comparisons to The Big Chill are unavoidable). Plaza in a dry comic role—as the zombie seductress Beth—is already a proven recipe for success.Advantage: Life After Beth
The EnsembleJohn C. Reilly and Molly Shannon make an unstoppable pair as Beth’s grateful but naïve parents in Life After Beth. This couple has proven on-screen chemistry: They co-starred in the 2007 film Year of the Dog and also 1999’s Never Been Kissed. Solo, Reilly made his name with films like The Aviator, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and, more recently, We Need to Talk About Kevin, while Shannon is best known for her six-year stint on Saturday Night Live. On Zach’s side of the family tree, Cheryl Hines (Judy Orfman) has starred on TV in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and in film in Waitress alongside Keri Russell and Adrienne Shelley. But DeHaan—as boyfriend Zach—is still untested in the realm of comedy. If his performance as Lucien Carr, the beat generation member and close friend of Jack Kerouac, in Kill Your Darlings, is any indicator, he’s headed for great things. The core cast is supported by Anna Kendrick and Matthew Gray Gubler, so there’s eye-candy to go around in addition to what are sure to be a few fine performances.
As far as millennial appeal goes, however, About Alex comes out on top. Between Plaza, Maggie Grace (Lost), Max Minghella (The Social Network, The Ides of March), Max Greenfield (New Girl, They Came Together, the newest spoof from Wet Hot American Summer director David Wain), Nate Parker (The Great Debaters, The Secret Life of Bees) and Jason Ritter (Parenthood), even if you don’t know the name, you’ll recognize the faces. Like Plaza, many of her co-stars are making the leap from TV to film. Their similar career experience affords the cast of About Alex a chemistry that can’t be matched.Advantage: About AlexThe IntrigueLike Zombieland, Warm Bodies, and the entire Scary Movie franchise before it, Life After Beth offers a twisted, comic take on the traditional slasher genre. The comedy-horror effort can either be really good (Shaun of the Dead) or really, really bad (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Life After Beth is founded on a strong premise—boy waxes rhapsodic about love to girl while girl eats other boys—that combines horror spoof with valid commentary about family relationships. In About Alex, the focus is much tighter: seven friends, three days. While, like Life After Beth, the point of departure is a close brush with death, it offers a chance for more profound studies in character because it lacks the preconceived notions about genre that comes with any horror story. It still risks typing its characters, continuing in the vein of The Big Chill, right down to the name of its suicidal protagonist (the film has already garnered numerous reviews as the Big Chill for the millennial generation). “This is one of those ’80s movies,” Plaza says to her friends over dinner. But the film poses a “what-if” scenario: What if Alex survived? We’re excited to see how it unfolds.Advantage: About AlexThe RomanceZach is heartbroken when Beth is so suddenly taken from him. When he finds her returned to him, he writes her songs—terrible, sappy songs—and never fails to assure her of his undying devotion. It’s refreshing to see a woman in a (very literally, in the case of blood-sucking Beth) dominant role in film and in a relationship. Plaza’s character in About Alex has two potential love interests, even in this small group of friends, but romance is certainly not the core focus of the film. It’s all part of each character’s process of finding him or herself over the course of the film, but the romance in About Alex seems too easily bought to really connect with the audience.Advantage: Life After BethThe HypeLife After Beth debuted in competition at Sundance, About Alex at Tribeca. As far as international name-value goes, Sundance is the winner, and About Alex was received somewhat tepidly after its screening. But while Life After Beth is screenwriter Jeff Baena’s first foray into directing (his name last appeared on screen as the writer for 2004’s I Heart Huckabees), while About Alex is Jesse Zwick’s first foray into, well, anything (he wrote an episode of Parenthood in 2012). Untested talent might surprise—Zwick’s father, Edward Zwich, was the man behind The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond—out as far as hype goes, Life After Beth is the clear winner.Advantage: Life After BethThe VerdictThey’re both worth seeing. About Alex is sure to invite laughs and tears alike with all-around strong performances, while Life After Beth‘s punny romance will probably prompt laughs and cringes, especially as Beth begins to decompose (even zombies can’t live forever). We’ll be first in line for Life After Beth, though, because between the cast, the plot and the direction, it seems the perfect choice for our next summer flick.Winner: Life After Beth