The Ex feels like a sitcom. There’s a wacky workplace filled with kookie characters. There’s the heartwarming but stressful home life. There’s a zany neighbor kid who brings the cute but also a little bit of safe edge. And it stars Zach Braff and Jason Bateman, guys who are more familiar to us from their stints on the small screen than anything else. But if The Ex were a sitcom it would have one huge advantage over itself as a movie: it would only be a half hour long.
To be fair, The Ex isn’t terrible. In fact, when Jason Bateman is onscreen it can almost be enjoyable, and Charles Grodin has some choice moments. But mostly The Ex feels like one of those sitcoms that you can’t believe people watch, but they apparently do, because they’re on TV for years; sitcoms like The King of Queens or Everybody Loves Raymond, shows that aren’t eye-gougingly bad, and that can elicit a laugh or two out of you over the course of a half hour, but that are just the product of years of network research and testing, aiming right at the ‘Collects Hummel figures’ and ‘Eats at Applebees on the regular’ audience. With its soft PG-13 rating, there’s nothing in The Ex that doesn’t feel like it couldn’t get past the censors at 9pm on ABC (except for the scene where Charles Grodin shouts ‘Fuck!’ after burning his hand. Edgy!).
Which is too bad, since The Ex seems to have a nicely misanthropic concept at its center: Zach Braff is a guy who can’t find the right career. His wife, Amanda Peet (emoting even worse than on Studio 60, believe it or not), has just had a baby when he loses his latest job, which is being a cook under a tough chef (a cameo from a criminally mis-used Paul Rudd. I have never seen Rudd less funny than this, including The Shape of Things). They move from New York City to Ohio, where Peet’s dad, Charles Grodin, gets Braff a job at the New Age-y ad agency where he works… and where Peet’s ex, a wheelchair-bound and still obsessed Jason Bateman, works.
One of the great things about the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that it allowed the wheelchair guy to be a complete douchebag, and The Ex sort of goes this route (until Bateman reveals he was being all Don Caballero the whole time). Crippled people are too often portrayed as saints in the popular culture, and it’s so damned annoying – losing your legs doesn’t make you a better person or more inspirational. You can still be a big useless asshole. And with the deadpan, dry as Barbara Bush’s cooze humor that he used so perfectly on Arrested Development, Bateman makes his character into a nicely insufferable prick.
Sadly, this isn’t a movie about Bateman’s character. It’s about Braff’s, whose last name is the wildly unlikely Reilly (Peet’s last name is Kowalski. I would actually buy these names reversed), and who is the kind of drippy manchild that Braff has driven into the ground on Scrubs. The Ex doesn’t ever feel like a vehicle for Braff, and every now and again you can see the scorch marks where Braff-appropriate moments or jokes were welded in. Braff is chiefly unable to play the escalating tension between him and Bateman, and worse than that the film is unable to really build it either, jumping right into the deep end too early.
I laughed during The Ex – I actually howled at a gag involving the Jane Fonda movie Coming Home, but I’m a movie nerd – and the movie is Mostly Harmless for sure. It’s the kind of movie that someone will catch on TV (probably the place where The Ex will feel most at home) in two years and then drop me an email asking why I disliked it so much. I don’t dislike the movie so much as it just sloughed off me, unable to make much of an impression. Although if I thought about the shitty cop-out ending, telegraphed right from the start, I might get annoyed. But if the filmmakers didn’t think The Ex was worth much effort while making it, why should I put much effort into critiquing it?