It is reassuring to know that even after the zombie plague begins in earnest, a strong vein of Jewish humor will thrive. This is the best news to come out of the superbly titled Life After Beth, a comedy that kneads together the relationship movie with the zombie genre. After opening with a brief glimpse of the title character (Aubrey Plaza) jogging into the woods toward a fateful encounter with a poisonous snake, the movie turns to the grief of Beth’s loved ones. Beth has died, and boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan, from the most recent Spider-Man movie) can’t seem to let go. When she comes back undead—confused, but otherwise energetic enough—they resume their romance. Because Beth’s parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) insist on not telling her about her death, Zach has a difficult time explaining why Beth shouldn’t leave the house much or be seen by people.
Writer/director Jeff Baena—who must be held partially liable for I (Heart) Huckabees, as he wrote the script—quickly reveals this movie’s organizing strategy: The zombie stuff stands in for the usual ups and downs of a relationship. The need to control, the sudden rages, the way one partner begins changing dramatically—everything’s heightened a little, but still recognizable. Having found this potentially amusing metaphor, Baena deploys it in haphazard ways, getting sidetracked by less fruitful plot strands. And he doesn’t find good opportunities for Parks and Recreation deadpan master Plaza, although she is admirably game for Beth’s increasingly outrageous behavior.
Life After Beth does have funny scenes, many of which are rooted in a certain splendid tradition of ethnic humor. (For issues of tone, please consult Seinfeld episodes concerning Jerry’s parents in Florida.) Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines, as Zach’s parents, understand this mode; even in the midst of a zombie outbreak, they’re trying to set Zach up with the daughter (Anna Kendrick) of their friends, the Wexlers—such a nice girl, and from a good family, too. (I especially liked the cameo by veteran director Garry Marshall as Zach’s uncle, returned from the dead but still possessing crack comic timing.) If only the movie had a stronger comic pulse, or maybe the nerve to push its dark tendencies all the way, it might’ve blossomed into something beyond shtick. Opens Fri., Aug. 22 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Rated R. 91 minutes.