For those wondering if there’s any fresh meat left to chew on in zombie cinema, relationship comedy “Life After Beth” answers a resounding yes. Blending smart fantasy elements, broad comedy, tender romance and an atypically slow-burning apocalypse, the directorial debut of “I Heart Huckabees” co-writer Jeff Baena is charming, thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny. Given the current undead craze in pop culture, commercial prospects look lively — especially among young adults accustomed to playful genre romps.
Pic opens with a very much alive Beth (Aubrey Plaza) hiking in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, before immediately cutting to b.f. Zach (Dane DeHaan) grieving her death. With his own parents (Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser) either unwilling or unable to relate to his emotional turmoil, Zach feels more at home hanging out with Beth’s parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon). He plays chess and smokes pot with Maury and accepts a scarf of Beth’s as a gift from Geenie, but soon they’re not answering his calls or their front door.
Afraid he’s getting shut out, Zach starts snooping around their house and makes a shocking discovery: Beth isn’t dead after all. Initially certain he’s the victim of a hoax, Zach breaks in and demands an explanation, only to quickly realize there’s something not quite right about this new Beth. Geenie insists she’s been resurrected, and Maury prefers to not think too hard about the topic. Zach, naturally, worries his lost love might be a zombie. Since Beth’s worst symptom seems to be a case of mild amnesia instead of a craving for human flesh, Zach happily jumps at the chance to pick up where he and Beth left off — both emotionally and physically. In fact, Zach is rather relieved that Beth can’t remember she was close to breaking up with him right before she died.
Zach’s reverie proves short-lived as Beth’s “condition” continues to worsen and he starts to pick up on other strange happenings in the community: A random stranger runs screaming down the street, a postal worker (a clever cameo from Plaza’s “Parks and Recreation” co-star Jim O’Heir) screws up deliveries and plows down mailboxes, a short-order chef hurls plates of food at the waitress, etc. In a sharp and very amusing contrast to the usual doomsday scenarios, Baena gives us a world falling apart in such an incremental fashion that hardly anyone even notices (or perhaps cares enough to pay attention).
Even as the action grows in scale with every reel, Baena maintains a tight focus on Zach and Beth throughout and uses their connection as an extreme example of the “be careful what you wish for” adage. Anyone who has wished a loved one would return from the dead knows the feeling, but there’s a reason these stories always wind up in the horror genre. Baena has fun exploring blurred lines between line and death and manipulating zombie movie tropes to play with audience expectations. Viewers may find themselves rooting for Zach and Beth to find a happy ending even when logic — and foreshadowing — make it clear things are only going to get worse.
Baena finds the perfect partner in crime in Plaza, who fully inhabits every turn in Beth’s journey from girlish innocence to full-blown carnivorous monster. Allowing for a wide range in both physical and verbal comedy, Beth is Plaza’s juiciest role yet in an increasingly intriguing screen career. But the movie truly belongs to DeHaan. Both a deft comedian and a soulful dramatic presence, the young actor is shaping up to be one of the most idiosyncratic leading men of his generation. Not only does he develop a sparkling chemistry with Plaza, he positively shines opposite every member of the stellar supporting cast.
Reilly and Shannon put a delightfully particular spin on a couple who have likely only stayed together because of their daughter, and emerge as the standouts among that ensemble. Both thesps can take a throwaway line and turn it into comic gold, but there’s plenty of fun to go around. That includes strong moments for Hines and Reiser, plus Matthew Gray Gubler as Zach’s gun-obsessed security guard brother and a late-arriving Anna Kendrick, who makes the most of little screen time as a socially awkward acquaintance from Zach’s past.
Baena takes full advantage of the talent on hand in terrifically staged group scenes baring the hallmarks of classic screwball comedy, highlighted by Zach’s discovery that Beth is back from the dead, a hilariously dark confrontation between Plaza and Kendrick and a major turning point when Zach’s family faces undeniable proof that he’s not crazy. Everyone onscreen seems to be having a blast, and the feeling becomes as infectious as a zombie virus.
Baena’s confidence is reflected in a superb tech package that makes this notably self-assured debut look considerably more expensive than it likely was to make.