Sundance 2014: Ryan Reynolds talks to the animals in 'The Voices' and Aubrey Plaza goes zombie in 'Life After Beth'

There’s a certain kind of oddball film that seems like it could only have its coming-out party at a place like Sundance. Marjane Satrapi’s dark serial killer comedy The Voices is one of those films. The best way I can think to describe it is: imagine Fight Club if Brad Pitt’s part was played by a talking dog and cat.

Tyler Durden comparisons aside, Satrapi, the Iranian director of 2007’s Persepolis, has created a totally unique, genre-defying film. Which isn’t to say The Voices is great. Far from it. It’s wildly uneven and it never finds a tone and sticks with it. But it’s a boldly gutsy and giddy experiment mainly because it gives us a likable, sympathetic, gee-whiz protagonist (Ryan Reynolds) and then spends the next hour and a half showing him go on a psychotic killing spree. The hook of the film –and it’s a doozy — is that through it all, Reynolds  is egged on in his homicidal deeds by his cat (Mr. Whiskers) and cautioned against them by his dog (Bosco), both of whom talk to him. Like the devil and angel that hover over all of our shoulders, Mr. Whiskers is a nasty piece of business who speaks in a Fat Bastard Scottish brogue, while Bosco is a dumb-but-moral mutt with a southern drawl.

Despite his hunky, leading-man good looks and relative box-office currency (Green Lantern and R.I.P.D. aside), Reynolds has always been an interesting actor because he’s at least willing to take chances. Sometimes those chances pan out, sometimes they don’t. But looking at movies like The Nines and Buried, you can’t say that he plays it safe. He had to know going in that The Voices would never be a mainstream multiplex hit, but that doesn’t stop him from delivering a surprising and ballsy performance. Jerry begins the film as a bubbly, optimistic factory worker who we slowly learn through sessions with his court-appointed shrink (Jacki Weaver) has a history of mental illness. And, of course, there’s the whole talking pet thing.

When Jerry develops a crush on one of his coworkers (Gemma Arterton), Bosco encourages asking her out. Meanwhile, Mr. Whiskers only cares about whether or not he will close the deal and have sex with her (well, that and making sure that Jerry feeds him on time: “Where the f—‘s my food, f—face?”). Jerry’s date goes horribly, tragically, fatally wrong. So does the one after that with another coworker (an excellent Anna Kendrick). And as Jerry’s world starts to unravel, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers do their hilarious, chatty push-and-pull routine yanking at the wishbone of his soul.

I wish I could say that the second half of the film lived up to the promise of the first. Or that the film probably won’t offend some folks with its glib, played-for-laughs treatment of mental illness. Still, The Voices is never less than unpredictable and amusing in a that’s-so-wrong kind of way. For those who take their comedy black, you could do a lot worse.

Like Ryan Reynolds, Aubrey Plaza is an actor who’s drawn to rolling the dice and taking risks — usually with a deadpan expression on her face. In Safety Not Guaranteed, The To Do List, and on Parks and Recreation, Plaza has a special and all-too-rare gift for totally committing to embarrassing situations and finding the absurd humor in them. Which is exactly what she does again in the gonzo zombie rom-com Life After Beth.

I could say that Plaza’s new film is the funniest zombie comedy since Shaun of the Dead, but the truth is there haven’t been many decent contenders for that title. I laughed while watching Life After Beth, but not as much, or as hard, as I felt like I should have. Like The Voices, it promises more than it ultimately delivers.

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth stars Dane DeHaan as Zack, who, at the opening of the film, is grieving over the death of his girlfriend (Plaza), who was bit by a snake while hiking. As he mourns along with her parents (a pair of aces John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon), he beats himself up over all of the things he never got to say to her while she was alive. But he soon gets a second chance when Beth reappears. She’s not a zombie exactly — not yet, at least. And the film has fun with the nonchalance with which Reilly and Shannon meet her return. After all, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

At first, Zack is freaked out. But soon he’s taking advantage of his romantic do-over with the girl he loves — even if she is acting a bit…odd.  Plaza’s Beth is moody, violent, horny, and what’s the deal with her new sweet tooth for smooth jazz and the strange decomposing rash on her face? Scared that she’s becoming one of the walking dead, Zack asks her: “You don’t want to, like, eat me, do you?” Plaza’s response: “Zack, not with my parents around!”

Things get worse when other deceased folks start turning up wanting to listen to smooth jazz and eat people too. It turns out World War Z has arrived and its soundtrack is Spyro Gyra and Chuck Mangione.

Life After Beth has a slew of strong supporting performances from Reilly and Shannon, Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines (as Zack’s oblivious parents), and Anna Kendrick (there she is again!). But it’s Plaza who literally and figuratively chews the movie up. With a premise as absurd as Life After Beth‘s is, it’s a testament to Plaza that she gives it everything she’s got. The sight of this wonderful actress — bloody, foaming at the mouth, and lumbering around with a stove strapped to her back is one I won’t forget anytime soon.

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