After a few false starts, Aubrey Plaza is officially taking a stab at big-screen stardom. The 30-year-old comedian has spent the last five years peacocking her dead-funny deadpan skills on Parks and Recreation, but that show will end early next year, and Plaza is prepping her next act. Along with Life After Beth, she has two other late-summer movie releases – About Alex (The Big Chill for the Twitter set) and Ned Rifle (another dark comedy premiering next week at the Toronto International Film Festival). Her hard-core fan base will probably be psyched to have so many options. For the sake of those aforementioned career aspirations, though, here’s hoping at least one of those options is better than Life After Beth.
Like so much of pop culture these days, the movie is zombie-centric. Beth is a young woman who goes for a hike and gets a lethal snakebite. Her boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan), begins the mourning process, wearing a lot of black and possibly getting intimate with his dead girlfriend’s chunky knit scarf. Before long, Zach learns that Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) have a secret. Good news: Beth has returned to them. Bad news: She might be dead. Even worse: With more than an hour left to go, you might wish you were, too.
The movie is directed and written by Jeff Baena, who co-wrote the quirky and awesome I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell 10 years ago. His IMDB page reveals nothing of the decade in between, but perhaps the more important record here is his who’s-dated-who profile: Baena has been Plaza’s boyfriend since 2011. (Sexpotism does a lot to explain why a promising actress would sign on to a script that feels like it was written in the aftermath of a bong hit.) Among many missteps is a total tonal identity crisis. Plaza has described Beth as a “zom-com-rom-dram.” (N.B. This remark is more clever than anything in the movie it describes.)
DeHaan, who was promising as a young Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond the Pines a couple of years back, is a solid straight man, showing a pretty impressive range of emotion for a guy who spends most of the movie scolding his zombie girlfriend (“Beth, you just ate a guy!”). The supporting cast (Reilly and Shannon along with Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines as Zach’s parents) is hard to make sense of. The custom would be to say that they were “criminally underused,” but presuming that each actor read the script before agreeing to participate, “criminally negligent” feels like a more appropriate description. Reilly in particular is annoying and hollow as a parent who can’t come to terms with the destructive blood-guzzler who used to be his daughter.
Plaza gives it her growling, barrelling, foaming-at-the-mouth best, forming a character that merges April from Parks and Rec with Animal from The Muppets. Her physical comedy scenes are so over the top that you have to laugh a little, but it’s that shame-on-me kind of laugh that sneaks out during the man-takes-sporting-equipment-to-the-crotch clips on America’s Funniest Home Videos.
It is certainly possible that Baena is going for a deeper meaning, but even that feels like a case of indecisiveness: Is it an examination of how parents have trouble letting their kids grow up? A parody of life and death in the suburbs? A feminist manifesto? (It’s hard not to read some sort of subtext into a scene where a woman goes launching off a cliff while tied up to a washing machine.) No, wait: It’s a cautionary tale about how people can make bad decisions to please the people they love – something to keep in mind for zombie/human romances. And role selection.