Aubrey Plaza has been growing on me lately. I wasn’t a fan of the first couple of movies I watched her in. But I’m convinced that she’s perfect for a very specific type of role. And when she finds it, magic happens. The title character in Life After Beth is one of those instances. She’s not asked to be witty and sharp. Though she’s not necessarily a stooge opposite a straight man either, but almost. She’s given a persona where her character thinks she knows how the world works, but her flaws are obliviously revealed through her overzealous actions and false self-confidence.
The film begins as our protagonist, Zach (Dane DeHaan), is mourning the death of his girlfriend, Beth (Plaza). He’s coping with the loss by spending time with her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) at their house playing chess and going through her things. Until one day they start ignoring him. They won’t pick up his calls. He shows up at their house and they pretend they’re not there. He gets suspicious because he was under the impression that their growing relationship was mutually valued. But upon sneaking around outside and peering through their windows, he sees something startling. He sees Beth.
It turns out Beth is alive, which initially worries Zach because he thinks that means she faked her death as an option to break up with him. But it’s soon clear that she has actually returned from the dead. She doesn’t know that she ever died and her parents would like to keep it that way. They don’t even want her leaving the house during the daytime in case people see her and start to talk.
I wouldn’t be giving anything away by telling you that Beth is slowly turning into a zombie. So what was once a cause for rejoice has now turned into a nightmare. Zach tries to uncover the mystery while also struggling with the fact that he does, in fact, still love Beth.
What makes Life After Beth work so well is its dedication to abiding by the tonal confines it establishes early on. A magic-realism comedy that perfectly balances surrealistic with sober, all while underpinning everything with this smart tongue-in-cheek humor that’s constantly walking the line between irreverent and acerbic. The jokes stem from the irony created by its parameters.
The comedy in Life After Beth can be easily missed if not paying enough attention. Subtle moments may come off as throwaways to those who haven’t acquired the taste of this style of humor.
Writer/director Jeff Baena has help from his cast–three member of the all-facetious team, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, and Molly Shannon. Shannon and Reilly play Beth’s bizarre parents, Geenie and Maury, who remain in denial of their daughter’s condition at the risk of not “looking a gift horse in the mouth”, afraid to question Beth’s return in fear that it’s too good to be true. Geenie obliviously enables Beth’s zombie ways and even lets her daughter snack on her hand at one point. Maury, on the other hand comes up with entertainingly lazy excuses to hide Beth’s situation from her.
The film avoids being plagued with a couple obnoxious supporting characters, notably Zach’s family, by building the world around them in a way that ends up favoring our protagonist.
Life After Beth doesn’t just keep its clever concept stagnant, but always finds somewhere new to go with it. This movie’s main priority is giving us an entertaining what-if premise, even bordering on allegorical, without ever needing to abandon its remarkably consistent tone. The characters are, at times, not quite developed enough (Zach and Beth’s relationship could have been more nuanced), and there are a couple blatant plot holes that do exist, but nothing that truly takes away from all the fun.