The problem with creating and refining a distinctive persona is that if you do it well enough, people will assume you can’t do anything else — that it’s just who you are, that you’re “playing yourself,” and that all the work you do will fall within the same frame. The undercurrent of that idea runs through much of what is said and written about Aubrey Plaza, who burst onto the scene in 2009 (via a featured turn in Funny People and a supporting role on Parks and Recreation) with, it seemed, a fully formed comic sensibility intact: a kind of weary, impatient, ironic detachment, chiefly expressed by a vocal delivery dry enough to start a brushfire. But she started coloring outside those lines almost immediately, and with her latest film, Life After Beth (out Friday) she makes her furthest departure from her “type” to date. But she doesn’t just do it by playing undead; she does it by continuing a fascinating exploration of onscreen sexuality.
It started last summer, with The To-Do List, a candid sex comedy that was, truth be told, not altogether good — clumsily made and too reliant on one-joke ‘90s nostalgia, saddled with several half-baked, poorly executed would-be comic set pieces. Yet it was a film worthy of attention and admiration, less for what it did than for what other movies don’t do: it was a firmly non-judgmental, sex-positive story, told from the point of view of an unapologetic young female protagonist. As Reel Change’s Noah Gittell noted, “Placing a female character at the center of a juvenile gross-out comedy is progressive enough — although not unprecedented (Bridesmaids)—– but the focus on female pleasure is a new one, and it’s especially culturally significant because Hollywood has ignored it for so long.”
It wasn’t just that Hollywood had ignored it; Aubrey Plaza’s characters to that point hadn’t seemed all that interested in it either. It’s not that Parks’ April Ludgate, Safety Not Guaranteed’s Darius, or Funny People’s Daisy are asexual (whom Daisy sleeps with when is a fairly significant plot point); it’s that they basically regard sex — and most other things — with a shrug. Not so with The To-Do List’s Brandy, a brainy virgin who sets out, with single-minded, minutely detailed precision, to not only have sexual experiences, but to enjoy her sexuality. What’s fascinating about Plaza’s casting in the film is how you can see her mirroring the character; both are, at first, awkward and uncomfortable in the film’s many sexual situations, but their confidence grows as the narrative reaches its only possible conclusion (her orgasm).
Her subsequent work has followed that progression. The role of Sarah in last week’s About Alex is similarly dissimilar to the “Aubrey Plaza type”; she’s a warm, concerned friend and a bit of an open book emotionally, still prone to unhealthy hookups with her ex. But the picture doesn’t see their assignations as tragic, either; in fact, some comic hay is made of the enthusiasm with which they resume old habits.
And in Life After Beth, a ravenous sexual appetite isn’t just a character quirk — it’s one of the key components of Plaza’s comic arsenal. Her character, Beth Slocum, dies almost immediately, and the story’s initial focus is on the grieving of her parents and surviving boyfriend (Dane DeHaan, finally finding a role where his jittery oddness fits). And then, out of nowhere, Beth just reappears, without explanation. She has no memory of her death, and has forgotten the tentativeness of her romantic relationship at the time; when he comes over for a visit, she looks at him like a freshly grilled steak and drags him down her hallway with wild abandon.
In short, Beth’s “resurrection” is accompanied by a fierce sexual awakening, and it’s one that intensifies the deeper she navigates into the undead. It turns her into a bit of a rage monster, burning down structures and tearing her house to pieces, yet even as she becomes more hideous (graphic wounds, oozing blood, green teeth, paralyzing breath), she maintains her appetite for physical satisfaction. It becomes the motor for not just her gloriously unhinged performance — growling, ranting, bellowing, and brilliant — but the inspired anarchy of the entire third act.
Plaza’s work in these three films is noteworthy on several levels: for her remarkable physical transformations, the exploration of her characters’ emotional lives, her ever-reliable crackerjack comic timing. But all of those qualities were hinted at, ever so slightly, earlier in her career; by so actively identifying and exploring her characters’ sexuality — and the many possible ramifications of it — Plaza has made it clear that she’s up for just about anything onscreen, and that’s an exciting quality for any actor to embrace.
About Alex is out now in limited release. Life After Beth opens tomorrow.