May 17, 2007

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The Ex (PG-13)
Zach Braff battles Jason Bateman for the love of Amanda Peet in The Ex, a movie that delightfully plays off the less-than-A-list-ness of the aforementioned stars.

Tom Reilly (Braff) is something of a screwup. Quick to quit a job, Tom storms out of a chef’s gig just as his wife Sofia Kowalski (Peet) leaves her law office to give birth to their son and become a stay-at-home mom. Since a kid with two stay-at-home parents is likely to be a hungry one, the couple decides to pick up their New York City life and transplant it to Ohio, where Sofia’s dad has a job waiting for Tom.

Bob Kowalski (Charles Grodin) is the oldest employee of an advertising company that’s rather thick with B.S. (they throw around an imaginary ball, the “Yes ball,” to help keep the creative juices flowing). Bob asks Chip (Bateman) to shepherd Tom through this land of relentlessly positive thinking and extreme motivation. Chip is happy to do so because Chip is the most teamy of team players. He is also the paraplegic high school boyfriend of Sofia. Though the office only sees Chip’s uber helpfulness, Tom sees Chip for what he is: a chipper psychopath bent on destroying Tom and Sofia’s marriage and muscling himself back into Sofia’s life.

Thusly, when Tom gets a good idea, Chip steals it, leaving Tom to fumble his way through market projections. When Tom and Sofia have a fight, Chip shows up for Kowalski family dinner. Chip invites Tom to play wheelchair basketball but doesn’t tell the other players that Tom isn’t handicapped.

Meanwhile, Sofia is having a hard time adjusting to life as a full-time mom. She makes friends with a visiting neighbor kid and suffers through a New Age baby-and-me class to kill the day.

I’m almost afraid to review this movie — anything I say will raise expectations and make this movie a lesser experience for you than it was for me. I went in expecting another mopefest full of a hangdog Zach Braff coming to terms with maturity (dude, you’re 32; just be mature already). There’s a bit of that here but the movie almost makes fun of it. And Bateman’s overachieving differently-abled poster boy isn’t quite the Eddie Haskell goodie-goodie you’d expect. He’s a bit pushy and weird and we never once feel the kind of sympathy for him that we expect we’re going to. Likewise, Peet isn’t the usual bland wife character. She’s frustrated and pissed and not as easily swayed as your standard romantic comedy character. She is also, we suspect, quietly losing her mind over her sudden and dramatic lifestyle shift.

The Ex has bits of slapstick and bits of romantic comedy and great big chunks of weird, sometimes dark humor about identity and relationships and office politics and the weird speech patterns of Charles Grodin. The movie jerks you around in ways that work sometimes and don’t sometimes. There are moments of brilliance (Amy Poehler has a bit part as a fellow advertising company employee; her eyeroll after catching the “Yes ball” is worth the price of admission alone) and moments of flatness (the neighbor kid becomes tied up in an ad campaign leading to a fair amount of repetitive silliness with Braff). Between the characters and the actors themselves (two of the three leads were recently on cancelled TV shows; one is on a constantly low-rated TV show) there is a heavy note of desperation to the movie, which lends the film an otherwise inexplicable schadenfreude-y tone at times.

The Ex isn’t the kind of movie you’d set out to see; it’s like a compromise between the person who wanted the broad comedy, the person looking for a romance and the person who just wants out of the Cineplex lobby and away from the gaggle of teenagers. It’s also a bit of a surprise — funnier and a bit meaner than you’d expect from such a quietly marketed, clearly abandoned film. C+

Rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief language and a drug reference. Directed by Jesse Peretz and written by David Guion and Michael Handelman, The Ex is an hour and 29 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by the Weinstein Company and by MGM Distribution.