'Life & Beth' review: Amy Schumer's Disney+ dramedy lacks momentum

Beth (Amy Schumer) and John (Michael Cera) in Life & Beth (Disney+)
Beth (Amy Schumer) and John (Michael Cera) in Life & Beth (Disney+)

Life & Beth streams on Disney+ from 18 May, featuring comedian, writer and would-be character actor Amy Schumer. A one-woman powerhouse of grounded self-deprecation, who has forged a career by portraying comedically empowered women in I Am Pretty and Trainwreck — each one taking full advantage of her polished persona for potential paydirt.

From the outset Life & Beth feels tonally awkward, bouncing between teenage flashbacks and present-day epiphanies. It also possesses a freewheeling quality, which makes this series feel like more of an extended showcase, rather than anything more dramatic. Audiences may find it hard to get emotionally invested in the beginning.

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Following a death early on — which is pivotal to everything that follows — Beth (Amy Schumer) makes some life changing choices. Choices that force her to re-evaluate what is really important, not only disrupting any social agenda she might have, but also giving this series its central dramatic conceit.

John (Michael Cera) and Beth (Amy Schumer) in Life & Beth (Disney+)
John (Michael Cera) and Beth (Amy Schumer) in Life & Beth (Disney+)

However, this newly minted show from Disney+ has more than its fair share of problems. Not least of which is the lack of momentum from one scene to the next. An issue which persists as some truly bizarre cameo roles come and go. The strangest of which is Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

There are less left field cameos including Hamilton alumni Jonathan Groff, but none can never really compete with the bizarre turn offered up by Byrne as subdued medical man Doctor B.

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Life & Beth rarely delivers as a comedy, but instead trades off being some type of dramatic hybrid, with few flashes of genuine humour. Something that hamstrings this series throughout and rarely allows Schumer the freedom she thrives on.

However, amongst the supporting cast including Maya (Yamaneika Saunders), Liz (Rachel Feinstein) and Owen (Larry Owens) there is hope to be found. As these bit part players often make up for dramatic shortcomings elsewhere. Filling out Life & Beth with a colourful collection of character work, either as friends or work colleagues, while the most memorable amongst them is office worker Murray (Murray Hill).

John (Michael Cera), Beth (Amy Schumer) and Maya (Yamaneika Saunders) in Life & Beth (Disney+)
John (Michael Cera), Beth (Amy Schumer) and Maya (Yamaneika Saunders) in Life & Beth. (Disney+)

Although their contribution might seem minimal, Murray proves to make a lasting impression, both opposite Schumer and elsewhere amongst this diverse ensemble. Being both visually flamboyant and distinctively dressed with a fine taste in tailoring, Murray manages to momentarily lift a series, by making the most of every moment on screen. A fact which only underlines how dramatically dry things feel later on.

If anything could be described as the Achilles heel of this show, it would also be a lack of pathos in those early episodes, which takes away any dramatic potential, leaving Life & Beth in an odd limbo land, making the whole experience rather lacklustre. Both in terms of delivering anything of interest in those flash back scenes, as well as diminishing any emotional connections which follow.

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A problem which is exacerbated through the rudderless performance offered up by Amy Schumer, who seems oddly subdued, irrespective of the fictional mother she is mourning. Thankfully, Life & Beth has at least one saving grace beyond the bizarre cameo of Eighties pop icon David Byrne, in Arrested Development star Michael Cera as winery guru John.

Beth (Amy Schumer) and John (Michael Cera) in Life & Beth (Disney+)
Beth (Amy Schumer) and John (Michael Cera) in Life & Beth (Disney+)

John is defined as much by his facial hair as any bloodied casual attire he might wear, but it is Cera who makes Schumer raise her game in subtle ways. Starting with a distinct sense of chemistry between them which suddenly makes all the difference as Life & Beth morphs into a completely different show.

Beth and John share an intimate unspoken connection for the briefest moment, before this oddly ambitious series seems to lose its way again. Indulging in musical interludes that attempt to influence the audience, while Beth reminisces over old scrapbooks and childhood memories. A method of storytelling which on this occasion feels manipulative rather than organically earned.

In many ways, this is the main problem with Life & Beth, making any recommendations hard to muster. There is no doubt that somewhere in this strange concoction there exists a good series, with some serious things to say about getting older and ageing.

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However, in the main it feels like Schumer gets in her own way. By being unable to balance all the competing elements effectively, Life & Beth really struggles to bring any degree of dramatic resolution, which is a shame as Amy Schumer deserves better.

Life & Beth is streaming on Disney+ from 18 May.