Review: Aubrey Plaza stretches in gory horror-comedy 'Life After Beth'
PARK CITY - Well, at least now I know why smooth jazz exists.
It's uncommon to see more than one good horror-comedy in a year, much less two within 24 hours, but "Life After Beth" proved to be a fascinating follow-up to "Cooties," both films ostensibly building off of the current fascination with zombies in pop culture, but each approaching the subject in totally different ways.
"Cooties" really does want to scare you and freak you out, and the humor is mainly from watching those particular characters handle an otherwise not particularly funny situation. "Life After Beth," on the other hand, is a comedy first and foremost, and it showcases a great cast, including two leads who both seem to be stretching here in ways that are exciting to see.
Aubrey Plaza isn't someone you just plug into a generic romantic comedy. I thought "Safety Not Guaranteed" was an interesting role for her, but not a great film. It did suggest, though, that her secret weapon is her rarely deployed smile, and the more it's shown up on "Parks and Recreation," the more true that's seemed. It makes sense that her character April has been happier as she's settled into married life and grown into a real role in the city government, and as April has bloomed, so has Plaza. What I love about her role in "Life After Beth" is that it's a chance for her to try a completely different comic persona, and she slips into it so easily, playing it with such an easy enthusiasm, that it seems like she's got far more to offer than her early work suggested.
In the film's opening moments, we see Beth Slocum (Plaza) on a hike by herself, and as she vanishes around a corner, we jump forward to Zach (Dane DeHaan) standing in a grocery store, looking for napkins, on his way to Beth's funeral. He was Beth's boyfriend, and like her parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), he isn't sure how to process what happened. We learn that she was bit by a snake during her hike, and that she died. For Zach, it is a difficult emotional blow made more complicated by the fact that he and Beth were having some problems with their relationship.
At first, Maury and Geenie reach out to Zach because they know how much he's grieving. But when they cut him off with no explanation, he starts to push them for an answer and is shocked to realize that Beth is home again, and seems to be very much alive. At first, everyone's thrilled, and why not? She has no memory of her death, and she seems to simply be happy to be home, content to be with loved ones again.
The way writer/director Jef Baena doles out the little bits of explanation he bothers with are clever, and I like that he never really tries to explain what happened. He's more concerned with charting Zach's ongoing reaction to Beth's return and her evolution into something he doesn't recognize, and he plays both the emotional truth of it and the absurdity of it, often in the same scenes. Anna Kendrick shows up midway through as Erica, a girl who Zach knew in elementary school, and it sets off not only a jealous streak in Beth but something darker as well, even as it seems that more and more people begin to return, some of them in far worse shape than her.
Just as Plaza seems to be enjoying her chance to stretch beyond what she's done before, Dane DeHaan registers here as a really sly comic actor. I'm worried that he's going to get boxed in young as "the troubled guy," and he certainly does that well. But here, he plays a sort of lovesick confusion, a perplexed but open acceptance of the supernatural, and because he's not playing it broad, it seems genuine. They have real chemistry together, a must if the film's going to work at all. Anna Kendrick doesn't have a lot of screen time, but she plays her part like she's the lead in a really sappy romantic comedy, a choice that pays off as both adorable and hilarious.
Baena doesn't throw a lot of effects at the audience, but when he does incorporate them, there's an off-handed nature to it that sells the truth of the beats. It's a very confident first directorial effort, and I would applaud him for the film's big punchline, a visual moment that is truly outrageous and yet, somehow, almost moving. This feels like the kind of movie that someone could cut a great trailer for, and the whole cast, including Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines, and Matthew Gray Gubler as Zach's family, and a completely deranged cameo by Garry Marshall, manages to make a strong impression even with limited screen time. "Life After Beth" does sort of play the one idea for the whole film, and I doubt you'll be surprised by where it ends up, but it's got charm to spare.
And, yes, you'll hear plenty of smooth jazz, whether you like it or not.
"Life After Beth" is screening several more times during the fest, and it's still seeking distribution.