2014 was the year of zombie ex-girlfriend movies with pun-titles but only one of them was actually released, Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth, which came out to little or no fanfare (a shame as it’s delightful.) I’m unsure if Life After Beth’s lukewarm reception had anything to with Burying the Ex’s troubles finding a distributor or whether that’s just the way Joe Dante’s film career works in the post-Looney Tunes: Back in Action era; I’m sure that the lack of interest in Dante’s last dumped-onto-DVD-after-a-long-wait effort The Hole helped there too.
Going into this movie I hadn’t heard much of anything good about it and though I love Joe Dante, I’m aware that he’s very capable of making movies that I just plain don’t like. Maybe it was these preconceived notions which helped me along, but I found that I genuinely enjoy this movie.
First I’ll address a question that some of you may have. No, this movie is not better than Life After Beth. That movie is funnier, more heart-wrenching, and better written but while they are nigh-identical in their set-ups and eye-roll inducing titles, they diverge onto entirely different paths.
Beth was all about grief and how we tend to romanticize every aspect of loved-ones after they die, and the story’s arc was about the main character finally learning to move on and live life without this person who he had come to see as part of himself. Ex doesn’t aim for anything nearly so heady. Ex is about a guy who is in a toxic relationship and needs to take charge of his life and stand up and end it.
It would be easy to make Evelyn (Ashley Greene, the titular Ex) a raging demon bitch like a lot of movies do (looking you straight in the eye, Heartbreak Kid.) Ex does toe that line just a bit by making Evelyn a militant vegan environmentalist, which I’m sure draws nothing but ire from more sensible vegans and environmentalists everywhere, but her unlikable quirks are usually just the result of insecurity, baggage from the death of her mother, or just a general lack of compatibility with Max (Anton Yelchin.) She seems to be actually trying to make things work with Max but the problem is that they’re just too different to work and neither of them can accept this.
The whole message of the film is that Max needs to nut up and end things when he can clearly see they’re bad, and bad things keep happening to him because he keeps trying to take the easy way out instead of being open and honest. A lot of reviewers have dismissed this whole core idea as Max needing to dump the stuffy vegan buzzkill for the cool sexy chick that likes all the movies he does, but I don’t think they’re giving this movie the credit it deserves for handling things in a very adult manner.
Admittedly I can understand where those reviewers are coming from. Max’s horror obsession vs. Evelyn’s staunch environmentalism isn’t the best shorthand for the complicated clash of emotions going on and on the surface it does make things feel a bit shallow. I’m sure Max and Oliva’s (Alexandra Daddario) love of all things horror comes from a genuine place (I know it does, considering this is a Joe Dante movie) but it comes off a bit pandering and insufferable at times. Naturally we’re meant to dislike Evelyn so that Max doesn’t come off as a callous jerk, but there are times when it feels like the movie is maybe trying a bit too hard to make Evelyn unlikable.
Max is our main character and is, by the very nature of the storyline, kind of a whiny jerk. His unlikable qualities can’t be helped and Anton Yelchin really pours his charisma and screen presence into making the character work. Yelchin has had a pretty solid career of making characters that aren’t well written pop onscreen (give or take a shitty Dean Koontz adaptation) but you can really feel the strain on his acting muscles here. Max works, but only barely.
Ashley Greene (she played the most tolerable Cullen sibling in the Twilight saga) mugs like crazy as Evelyn. Her line deliveries occasionally fall flat but she seems to be having a lot of fun in the role and her gross-out gags with Yelchin tend to be the most amusing parts of the movie. To be honest there’s just not enough postmortem Evelyn in Burying the Ex and I think starting the movie with her already dead would’ve helped speed along to the good parts.
Olivia is Max’s new girlfriend. She’s just a hair shy of being a horror-movie enthusiast version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (every time somebody types that, Nathan Rabin gets a shiny nickle) trope but Alexandra Daddario is oozing with charm and she and Yelchin are so great together that you barely notice how little chemistry the characters actually have. She’s also disgustingly pretty and has big bright blue eyes that could burn a hole through sheet metal so I found it easy to ignore her more cliched quirks.
Travis is Charlie’s half-brother. He’s a loud, schlubby freeloader who spins signs for a living yet has a mysterious ability to attract an absurd amount of very attractive women to have random hook-ups with him (which he has in Max’s apartment, because he doesn’t want them knowing where he lives.) It’s not a very funny joke and the movie doesn’t devote a whole lot of time to it, but it still devotes too much. Oliver Cooper is kind-of a middle ground between Dan Fogler and Jonah Hill who manifests the less likeable traits of both. He’s really only in the movie for a couple of plot points and to be a sounding board for Max’s thoughts.
Dick Miller makes a cameo, and his character is named Walter Paisley as tradition dictates! Miller plays a desk sergeant at a police station Max futilely goes to for help. It’s probably the biggest role the 87-year-old actor has had in ten years and, given his haggard appearance and the frequency with which Joe Dante movies are coming out these days, likely his last Dante cameo, so you had all better appreciate it!
I’m sure this movie is going to be extremely polarizing (I am fondly looking forward to all the “you’re wrong, asshole” comments below as I type this) but that has been the case with just about every one of Joe Dante’s movies. I know I put it through the wringer myself, and the script by first-timer Alan Trezza (his sole other credit is making the short film which formed the basis for this one, I can’t find it anywhere online so I’ve no idea if it’s better) is weak and filled with cliches but Joe Dante brings that magic that he brings to everything he does.
I can feel Joe Dante’s influence all over this thing: the cartoonish music and brightly-lit slapstick violence, the kitschy curio store nature of the supernatural influence, the smallness of the story, the running joke of all the characters working for companies with ridiculous slogans that they’re forced to say. It’s got that Gremlins feel even if it lacks that Gremlins screenplay (or Gremlins budget) and I think even people who didn’t care for The Hole may see this as a return to form for Joe Dante.
Burying the Ex is slight but it manages to be more than the sum of its parts and captures a lot of what we as viewers have always loved about Joe Dante (If I type his name one more time, I get a wish) and I think that for a good cross-section of you folks this movie can find a place in your heart and on your shelf.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars