Aubrey Plaza is an actor that has recently flourished, thanks to her procurement of an individualistic character type, one that is hers and hers alone. She maintains a recurring set of mannerisms, intonations, postures, and eye-rolls for any given role, including her most well-known turn as April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation and in last summer’s The To Do List. Plaza has yet to be featured in a film or TV show in which her performance has not elicited a satisfying sense of sameness—we’ve seen it all before, but that’s also what keeps us coming back.
In Life After Beth, written and helmed by Jeff Baena (screenwriter, I Heart Huckabees) in his directorial debut, Plaza, and the film, does not disappoint. She plays Beth, a recently deceased high school graduate who comes back to life as, well, a zombie, more or less. As is to be expected in a film that features the likes of Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines, Beth veers far and away from the haunting style of a George A. Romero zombie flick, nor does it attempt to roam the graphic novel patterns exhibited in AMC’s The Walking Dead. In fact, throughout its first two-thirds, one would be hard-pressed to identify Baena’s feature within the bounds of the zombie genre.
As a result, the dark comedy becomes mostly a platform for Plaza to fortify her reign as the connoisseur of cantankerous deadpan. As the bewildered, back-from-the-dead Beth, she certainly succeeds.
A more surprising casting comes in the form of Dane DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines, Kill Your Darlings) as Beth’s grieving boyfriend, Zach. The actor, who thus far in his early career has tended to inhabit more despondent, erratic, and egoistic characters—hence, he’s the perfect choice to play Harry Osborn in the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man franchise—commits to the role. He unexpectedly delivers a wildly appealing and often hilarious performance as a young man who must contend with the return of his dead girlfriend. Baena’s decision to cast DeHaan in a droller role, if still detached and dispirited, is bold and predicates the director as a risk-taker and one to keep an eye on.
Ultimately, though, this is about Plaza doing what she does best: playing a version of her sardonic self, or at least the “self” that she has constructed. One scene that particularly highlights the discrepancies between Plaza and her consummate acting contemporaries takes place outside of a diner. Zach shares a meal with Erica, a family friend played by the reliably bright and buoyant Anna Kendrick, and Beth stampedes toward her perceived competition after having been accidentally run over by Zach’s car. Adorned with skid marks on her white polka dot dress (one of many sight gags that the film employs to humorous effect), she proceeds to attack Erica both physically and with her vicious, visceral insults.
Kendrick’s startled response—“Ow! You’re weirdly strong!”—sums up the personification of the Aubrey Plaza type: she is a weirdly strong actress, both in her unending commitment to the sarcastic and in her willingness to sustain a recurring character type that might sway other actors from taking on such parts. Even though each role, including Life After Beth, ends up being more about Plaza playing “Plaza” than her getting lost in the character, one cannot help but think, Could anyone else do it any better? The answer, augmented by a classic Plaza eye-roll, is “No, duh!”