The Reeler


May 11, 2007

The Ex

Braff/Bateman comedy delivers on its pure, dumb promise

I'm about to claim that although The Ex isn't nearly as bad as you might think, it's still not worth a New York ticket price. This might seem like kind of a pointless task, but The Ex deserves a public defender -- at the very least, you should allot a lazy weeknight to its inevitable HBO on-demand showing. The Ex has had its title pointlessly changed (from Fast Track), been delayed over a year and -- perhaps most crippling of all -- stars Zach Braff, leading to bad buzz all around. (There’s also the participation of Harvey Weinstein, always a reason to fear the worst possible re-cut.) The reasons to consider it at all are Charles Grodin (his first screen part in 13 years) and director Jesse Peretz, although the latter requires a little more explanation. Peretz's previous film, The Chateau, was a lowbrow farce predicated mostly on the notion that there's nothing funnier than watching the proverbial ugly American mangle the French language. Shockingly, it worked: Ugly video and all, Peretz aimed low and scored creditably.

Regrettably, The Ex doesn't have Paul Rudd and Romany Malco to anchor itself (though the latter, probably best known as Jay in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, has a cameo). Instead, Braff co-stars, ostensibly with Amanda Peet as his wife but actually with Jason Bateman as his nemesis. At film's opening, Braff, having been fired from his chef job, decides that maybe God's trying to send the couple a message: It's time to get out of New York. So new mom Peet packs up and moves back to Ohio, where her dad (Grodin) gets Braff a long-offered job at an ad agency. The place is an out-of-date satire of touchy-feely New Age businesses that died with the Internet bubble, the kind where clothing is perpetually casual and smiley co-works toss around an invisible ball of positivity. The snake in the grass is Bateman: Paralyzed from the waist down, he tools around in a wheelchair, making it impossible for Braff to articulate suspicions of his would-be mentor without seeming like a dick.

It's little surprise that Bateman turns out to be the (sort-of) ex of the title, whose goal is ruining Braff's nascent career and stealing his wife; The Ex is nothing if not predictable, especially after the halfway mark, when the plot is outlined and there's nothing to do but wait for a resolution. It's got plenty of other signs of bad comedy, including bright, sitcom-y lighting and one of those awful scores where pizzicato strings nag along scenes that would play better without music. And not to accuse The Weinstein Company of being up to Harvey's old tricks, but the editing seems entirely half-assed, cutting off some scenes way before full comic fruition and hacking out perfectly good performers. This is Grodin’s fate, sadly; what little screen-time he gets is a monstrous parody of bluff, hearty All-American dads reconfigured as weird-voiced, terrifying patriarch too odd to be approached at face value. Wait for the DVD outtakes and bask.

What's left is a slightly bland but perfectly energetic comedy that contains not more than 30 seconds of sincerity. This is a virtue: Peet never gets a chance to indulge in the po-faced sincerity Rachel McAdams brought to Wedding Crashers, and the film never gets soggy. Instead, Braff -- still wearing the exact same facial expression that he's sustained all throughout Scrubs -- undergoes a sadistic gauntlet of humiliations and physical beatings that give Ben Stiller a run for his money. There's not a weak link in the cast (though Peet trots out the castrating wife and not much more), and there's a commendable willingness to play fast and mean. Most of the gags are physical, stupid and entirely dependent on good timing to work. But they do work, although only a few are inspired enough to do more than pass the time. And hey, think of all the demerits this movie doesn’t have -- no weepy Braff-curated soundtrack for one -- and how hard it is to find a pure, dumb laugh these days. The Ex isn’t an unlikely triumph, but it is exactly as good as its premise and ensemble promised before the malevolent buzz descended.

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