Sundance 2014: Aubrey Plaza Reinvents Herself in ‘Life After Beth’

PARK CITY, UTAH: Aubrey Plaza underplays so adroitly, on Parks & Rec and in films like Safety Not Guaranteed and Funny People, that it’s easy to wonder if she’s working with a limited range — that she’s merely playing the “Aubrey Plaza type” (and it has certainly become a type). If her new film Life After Beth — a dizzy little zombie comedy that premiered at Sundance yesterday — does nothing else, it should put those concerns to rest. She’s magnificent in a role that couldn’t be further from April Ludgate; hell, by the end of the picture, she couldn’t be further from the character she’s playing at the beginning. Her Beth is a brilliantly realized comic creation, and an awe-inspiring testimonial to exactly what she’s capable of.

When the story begins, she’s already dead, killed by a freak snake bite while out on a hike. Her boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) is understandably crushed by angst and sadness, clinging to her memory, longing for one more moment with her. So he’s understandably surprised when he sees her wandering around her house.

Life-still

The details of exactly how she got there aren’t immediately apparent; one of the pleasures of Jeff Baena’s screenplay is how casually the zombie uprising happens, almost in the background. (Also clever are his little additions to the zombie mythos: their desire to live in attics and attraction to smooth jazz make for some inspired gags.) But Beth is indeed undead, though she initially shows no hints of it (“It’s a resurrection!” insists her optimistic mother, nicely played by Molly Shannon). In fact, she has no memory at all of her death, and plays her initial scenes with a sweetness and vulnerability that’s rather charming. But the longer she’s out of the grave, the further that sunniness deteriorates; soon she’s licking her beau’s face, setting fires, screaming, rampaging, and generally raising hell.

It’s a dream role for the actor — and, unsurprisingly, one that she sought out and helped bring to the screen. Baena, who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees, told the Sundance audience that he nearly got the film made a full decade ago, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the boyfriend role. “It fell through, I walked away from it, but Aubrey’s agent was looking for a part for her, and he remembered this,” Baena recalled. “And he was like, ‘Whatever happened to that script?’” Plaza’s enthusiasm for the project was the spark that it needed, and it came together once she was attached.

Life-cast

“The script is one of the best scripts that I’ve ever read,” Plaza said. “It’s a beautifully written script. And I think — if I may speak for all of you — that whenever someone read the script, they immediately wanted to do it. It didn’t take much convincing.” Much as she did off-screen, Plaza gives the film its motor, and if Baena’s control of the material is occasionally uncertain, Life After Beth plays best when it feeds off her manic, gonzo energy, and runs with it.

The supporting cast, as Plaza notes, is stellar; John C. Reilly has several great moments as her dad (there’s something absolutely perfect about the way he sighs and says “Well…” when he finally has to explain how his dead daughter is wandering around his house), Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser play off each other nicely as Zach’s parents, and Anna Kendrick couldn’t be better in a brief but key role as an old friend. But this is Plaza’s show, and by the time she’s wandering around in the mountains with an oven strapped to her back, bellowing “PRETTY! PRETTY!”, there’s little doubt we’re going to have to entirely rethink our notions about this gifted comic actor.

Life After Beth plays this week at the Sundance Film Festival.