A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 90 mins.
Tom Reilly: Zach Braff / Sofia Kowalski: Amanda Peet / Chip Sanders: Jason Bateman / Amelia Kowalski: Mia Farrow / Dad: Charles Grodin / Stephen: Ian Hyland / Don Wollebin: Donal Logue
Directed by Jesse Peretz / Written by David Guion and Michael Handelman
THE EX tells kind of a dime-a-dozen story that has been the subject of countless other previous comedies. It provides for us a young, down-on-his-luck protagonist that engages in an occupational battle of wits with a crafty, cagey, and creepy antagonist, who just so happens to be worshipped and adored by everyone around him. Of course, the hero is able to discover that this man is really – at his core – a manipulative lunatic, but he's essentially at his wit’s end trying to prove it to all of his fellow co-workers.
To make matters even worse, the film even adds another juicy layer: the man that the hero wants to reveal to the world as a shameless charlatan actually was a former lover of his wife. Predictably, the wife still thinks that he is still as straight as an arrow, but the hero knows better. Through a desperate chain of events the bad guy is able to win the affections of the hero’s wife and whenever the hero tries to convince his wife that the man she thinks is okay isn’t, he fails at every turn. Ultimately, everyone around the hero begins to think that it is he that is mentally unstable, which puts extra pressure on him to finally – once and for all – reveal the villain for the two-faced scam artist that he is.
Again, this overall premise to THE EX has been regurgitated – in one form or another – in other genre films. It would be easy for me to just right off the film as yet another predictable, whacked-out, undisciplined comedy. Yet, the film is somewhat saved by the fact that it finds some seriously hilarious, dark laughs from the most macabre and politically incorrect moments. THE EX is a reasonable success as a black comedy and – as many of similar comedies as of late have failed to – it does not shy away from its more discomforting and tasteless moments. The film could have very easily been too saccharine to stomach, but because of its sly and wicked script and a very, very droll performance by one if its participants, THE EX manages to not outlive its welcome. Like some of the better Farrelly Brothers comedies, it finds a nice balance between being sweet and sugarcoated and vile and viscously funny. The film is not a perfect embodiment of its genre, but it marginally succeeds with it aims, not to mention the fact that the film is funny, sometimes uproariously so.
The largest individual laughs emerge from the “villain” of the piece. He is a “cripple” that is paralyzed from the waist down (well…everything is but one vital male appendage), wears snappy and sassy colored dress clothes with a bow tie, and seems remarkably decent, amiable, and charming. His name is Chip and is universally liked and respected by all of his fellow co-workers and friends. He seems to be the embodiment of geeky pleasantness.
Yet, under his outward façade of niceness and camaraderie lurks a twisted soul that is a master manipulator. He is played in the film in its best and most rousing performance by Jason Bateman. He has proven in past films and his short-lived, but ridiculously inspired and funny, TV series, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, that he can often can generate the biggest laughs by his soft-spoken and underplayed edge. He’s never big and broad in the film and never lets Chip get reduced down to silly caricature. Instead, he plays Chip with such a nonchalant level of morbid and hidden hostility that he comes off as even funnier…and creepier.
Alas, for the villain to “work” a comedy like this has to have a hero, and he is played by Zach Braff, who has no problem with this type of comedy (he’s been a staple on TV’s humorous SCRUBS for years now). His role is not as ostentatiously showy as Bateman’s; he’s essentially the straight man to all of his pratfalls. What Braff does do effectively is play the part of the uncomfortable misfit that commits one socially awkward atrocity after another. In essence, he is playing the type of character that Ben Stiller has made a career out of portraying. Yet, Braff is able to embody in his character some of his effervescent charm and appeal.
He plays Tom Reilly, a young underachiever that seems to not have any clue as to what he wants to do for the rest of his life. In the beginning of the film he works in a classy restaurant as a chef and hopes to get a big promotion. Thinks go south really fast when an argument with his boss (played with snarling antagonism by the usually hilarious Paul Rudd) culminates with his spraying condiments all over his Armani suit. Needless to say, Tom is quickly given the axe, which is not altogether good news to him. His wife, Sofia (played by the always plucky and attractive Amanda Peet) is nine months pregnant with their first baby. Before Tom can spill the beans to her, she is rushed to the hospital. She soon has baby Oliver (who is given his name through a funny set of circumstances), but she leaves the hospital with a grimace when she discovers that he husband – whom she thought would be the main breadwinner of the family – is unemployed.
In a desperate fit, Tom begrudgingly decides that he needs a job and needs it fast and takes a position with Sofia’s father at his advertising firm. Her dear-old dad, Bob (played by Charles Grodin, a welcome sight after his self-imposed film retirement of 13 years) has had a stand-alone offer for Tom for many years as an “assistant associate creative director.” Going from cook to ad man seems like an odd career transition for Tom, but he does so in hopes of saving his marriage and family. He also agrees to move back to Sofia’s hometown in Ohio into a modest house and start his job pronto. While he does this Sofia tries to make the troubling segue from working in a small law firm to being a stay at home mom.
Bob’s advertising agency is a…well…strange place. It’s New Agey to the point of incredulous overkill. People are encouraged to speak openly and candidly and to never, ever apologize for themselves (when someone has done something bad, they don’t verbally apologize, they write it out on a post-it-note). Bob also likes to throw a metaphorical “motivational ball” that is tossed from one worker to another in ad meetings. Tom, needless to say, has a bit of a rocky start, but manages to infuse himself into the agencies daily lifestyle pretty easily.
That is...until he meets Chip.
Tom may be an “assistant associate advertising director”, but he is clearly second to his immediate supervisor Chip, who at first comes across as a fairly kind and unassuming wheelchair-bound boss. Chip amusingly embellishes their relationship with a KARATE KID metaphor (“I am Miyagi, and you’re Ralph Macchio”). To everyone around the firm, Chip is a chip of the old block; a wonderkid that could do no wrong. Tim, on the other hand, grows suspicious of his “mentor.” He, like the audience, just knows that he is not some ordinary paraplegic.
Perhaps it is the way Chip finds roundabout ways of subtly chastising Tom for eating his morning yogurt. Or maybe it has something to do with the way Chip utterly embarrasses him at a local basketball game with his fellow wheelchair jocks. Tom, of course, tells Chip that he does not feel comfortable playing in a chair against “real” people with disabilities. Chip warms him over by saying that it’s perfectly “cool.” Unfortunately for Tom, he is horrendously ridiculed by all of them when he stands after a game-winning basket. It does not take a rocket scientist to know that Chip did not allude to Chip that his friends don’t take kindly to non-handicapped people playing in their sport. As a result, Tom grows increasingly paranoid that Chip is out to get him.
Tom’s spider-sense really goes off when he discovers that Chip was once Sophia’s cheerleading partner in high school and – gasp – actually slept with him. Maybe it is this that sets off Chip in a dastardly and malevolent plan to backstab and destroy Tom’s credibility with his fellow employees and his wife. He sees Tom as a lazy underachiever who has married the lust of his life and has now been easily chauffeured into a dream job primarily through family connections. The guilty pleasure of THE EX is to see Chip engage in his master plan to manipulate Tom for the worse. He does this by doing not-so-subtle things, like putting gay porn on his work laptop, stealing his advertising ideas, and – most crucially – making Sophia fall back into his arms.
It’s the dynamic between Chip and Tom that makes the film work, and when the two are on screen they emerge as effective foils to one another. What’s interesting is the fact that Braff’s Tom is not entirely a “good” and “decent” chap. Clearly, Chip becomes such a deviant and lecherous SOB that it’s very hard to like him in any way, but Tom is not really that squeaky clean either. There is a running subplot where he does everything but kidnap a neighborhood boy to help him in a crucial ad campaign he needs to finish. Perhaps even more crude – and shockingly funny – is when Tom crashes a dinner between Chip, Sophia, and her parents where he grabs Chip out of his wheelchair, drags him up a flight of stairs, and tries to prove that he can walk by throwing him down the stairs. Chip does not stand, nor does he when he hits the bottom of the stair well. It is THE EX’s wanton disregard for political correctness that’s one of its more admirable traits. The film never hides behind Chip’s impairment. The character himself at one point hilariously tells Chip that he uses it primarily to bed woman, who feel much more sympathetic to “cripples”.
Some of the individual performances are very funny. Braff has a good time playing Tom as a man of seemingly schizoid-induced rage against Chip. Charles Grodin has a few extremely humorous moments playing the outwardly warm–hearted and congenial ad boss (one of his funniest moments occurs when he has an altercation with a very hot lamp). Amanda Peet is okay as the perfunctory wife and Mia Farrow is kind of lost in her trippy role as Peet’s mother. She is never really exploited for hearty laughs. The film really is owned by Batmen, who is so effortless in his ability to dial in the ferociousness and sickening aspects of his character with the minimal of effort.
THE EX most certainly does not approach the high level of other notable black comedies like THE WAR OF THE ROSES in terms of showcasing unlikeable individuals doing appalling things to one another. The film, at times, has comic lapses and its overall premise has been the product of far too many comedies over the years. The film has one laugh that does not work to every two that do. Yet, THE EX is a lot less dumb than many recent comedies and more appealing as well. It also has some semblance of bawdy, un-PC sight gags that are as hilarious as they are unseemly. Beyond that, we also have the naturally smirky charisma of Zach Braff working in tandem with the sly and deadpanned delivery of Jason Bateman that helps to elevate the material beyond clichés. THE EX may not be a faultless, but the laughs outweigh the groans, and its two main leads have a madcap and discreet chemistry. It has just the right amount of tastelessness and bawdiness with the outlandish material that is able to inspire chuckles and scorn. I didn’t laugh a lot in THE EX, but I did enough to give it a marginal recommendation.