Life After Beth: Sundance Review

One of the most emotionally credible zom-coms since Shaun of the Dead.

Dane DeHaan plays a young man who's both elated and terrified when his dead girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) returns from the grave.

If Cooties is Sundance 2014's zombie comedy that hits every note of the well-established format and delights while doing so, Jeff Baena's Life After Beth is the one that reminds us how odd the mashup was to begin with. It's the one that plucks from the genre playbook only what it wants, then tells its own story while letting the world, in the background, go to hell in the usual way. It's the one that finds a new metaphoric meaning for zombie tropes, making them about the devastation of grief, and manages to keep us laughing while making that metaphor stick. It's a perfectly pitched debut that should benefit greatly from word of mouth and, especially given the top-flight comic talents surrounding lead Dane DeHaan, won't appeal solely to fanboys at the box office.

DeHaan plays Zach, whose girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) died a few days ago of a snake bite. Near catatonic with grief, he takes some comfort from spending time with her parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (a just-right Molly Shannon), who treat him like a son. But then they stop answering the door when he visits. They pretend not to be home, though Zach sees movement through the windows. He could swear he sees his dead girlfriend walking around in there.

Eventually the Slocums let him in on the secret that is equally baffling to them: Beth just showed up one night, sweet as can be but suffering a bit of memory loss. There's a big hole in the ground at her gravesite, but she doesn't remember crawling out -- or even dying. Maury and Geenie are happy for Zach to come keep their daughter company, so long as he doesn't tell anyone she's alive, tell her she was dead or take her outside where she might be spotted.

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All this is conveyed in confused, rapid-fire domestic arguments whose screwball pitch recalls some scenes in I Heart Huckabees, which Baena co-wrote with David O. Russell. Back at Zach's house, brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler) offers a bit of the loose-cannon element that Mark Wahlberg did in Huckabees: A security guard who's dying to use his Desert Eagle pistol one day, he has little patience with what he and their parents (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) interpret as grief-fueled hallucinations.

After confronting his shock, Zach's in bliss. Beth's memory loss has even wiped out the fact that she'd wanted to break up just before she died. He's getting to do things over, and it's beautiful. So what if she doesn't notice that she still has a gory snakebite wound, or if she develops something of a rash after they sneak out to have sex?

Especially once they're venturing away from home, Beth gets stranger and stranger. Plaza seems to have a lot of fun in her herky-jerky progression from miraculously returned angel to full-bore zombie monster, though there's nothing winky about the performance (which isn't to say there aren't plenty of jokes about it). But DeHaan carries more of the story's weight, juggling some seriously mixed emotions: What do you do when the love of your life starts smelling like a corpse and eating your car's upholstery?

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Beth isn't the only cadaver whose reset button has been punched. Just as Zach is finally deciding how he feels about her troubling state, the world goes haywire around him and dead grandparents start showing up for a nosh. Some corpses are calm, some are angry, but all have a weakness for smooth jazz. (You may never hear Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" the same way again.) Baena has some fun with zombie-apocalypse gags and more with little familial kerfuffles, but keeps a clear eye on the film's central relationship. This is always a tale of love and loss, even if the "gets girl"/"loses girl" arc repeats and distorts itself in some novel ways. Sometimes tender, sometimes frantic and always funny, the film's surprising coherence is exemplified in a climactic scene that pairs credible heartbreak with pure slapstick. (A great, electric-guitar-heavy score by BRMC, the rock band also known as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, goes a long way toward maintaining a consistent atmosphere.) Few of Shaun of the Dead's descendants have mixed opposing elements so well.

Production Company: StarStream Entertainment, Abbolita Productions, American Zoetrope

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Kendrick

Director-Screenwriter: Jeff Baena

Producers: Liz Destro, Michael Zakin

Executive producers: Kim Leadford, Tim Nye, Charles Bonan, Elizabeth Stillwell, Chris Herghelegiu, Brent Romagnolo, Courtney Kivowitz, Brian Young, Wendy Benge

Director of photography: Jay Hunter

Production designer: Michael Grasley

Music: BRMC

Costume designer: Negar Ali Kline

Editor: Colin Patton

Sales: WME Global, CAA

No rating, 89 minutes