Posted: 05/14/07

The Ex (2007)
by Karen Petruska

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Jesse Peretz’s The Ex is being widely panned, yet I find myself rooting for this uneven but intriguing film.  Starring Zach Braff (who had no role in the writing of the film) as Tom Reilly and Amanda Peet as his wife Sofia Kowalski, the film tells the story of a young husband and father who finds himself in battle with his wife’s ex.  The ex of the title is Chip Sanders (Jason Bateman), a wheelchair-bound advertising wunderkind.  After Chip repeatedly humiliates him, Tom determines to expose Chip’s duplicity.

This film could have traveled down the well-worn path of situation comedy: Chip plots, Tom suffers, and Sofia remains in the dark.  Instead, we get a film that attempts to examine the malaise suffered by two young married parents who are trying to do “what they are supposed to do” yet finding themselves unfulfilled and unhappy.  This rather serious foundation for the story is perhaps inappropriate for a comedy based on wheelchair humor and the shifts in tone can be jarring.  Yet there’s something admirable in the realism of the Tom-Amanda relationship.

Peet, in particular, excels as a young woman living her dream of staying home who finds that her dream isn’t exactly what she had planned.  One scene depicts her character, desperate for conversation, making small talk with a 10-year-old boy.  She says something like, “that’s bullshit, dude,” to the kid, and I found myself marveling at the honesty of the moment in which a licensed lawyer would sink to the level of a kid to find companionship.

Bateman is remarkably effective as…well…a shit.  Chip is manipulative and vindictive, but his plots to embarrass Tom almost always succeed.  So he’s a successful shit.  Jason Bateman and Zach Braff are reportedly friends, and their scenes together ripple with energy and menace.  Braff is less comfortable with Peet, with whom he has two expressions: puppy-dog eyes or a look of constipation.  When Zach Braff is on, he is really on. But when he’s not, he’s awkward and artificial.  Bateman, on the other hand, makes himself at home as a sociopathic a-hole.  He’s about as menacing as a guy in a polka-dotted bow tie can be.

Mia Farrow is wasted as Sofia’s mother Amelia Kowalski; she is granted the occasional ditzy comment but is otherwise innocuous.  Charles Grodin, however, brings true integrity to his role as Bob Kowalski, an aging advertising guy disappointed in his daughter’s choice of a husband.  Bob eventually comes to an understanding with Tom, and while this scene is rushed and a bit clichéd, Grodin and Braff have both earned the audience’s sympathy to the extent that we forgive the scene’s limitations.

The script, penned by relative newcomers David Guion and Michael Handelman, covers the stereotypical bases.  Cliché’s abound, yet in its egalitarian insight into the plight of a young couple struggling to come to terms with life as young parents, the script rises above standard comedic fare.  Sure, the plot is based on coincidence and occasionally stupidity, but the main characters are not only likeable, but also relatable.

Now, is the movie funny?  Not if you mean laugh-out-loud funny.  The humor is more on the level of Steve Carell’s character on television’s The Office.  The Ex puts Tom into uncomfortable and extremely un-PC situations.  Case in point, Tom throws the paraplegic Chip down a flight of stairs.  This is bold and shameless comedy that doesn’t aim to gross you out but certainly makes you squirm in your seat. 

Romantic comedy isn’t really my purview, but this film endeared itself to me in the cracks within its smooth veneer.  There’s plenty of formula, the tone is uneven, the pacing drags, and the ending resolves all plot points with laughable ease and tidiness.  Still, I can’t help but applaud the movie’s attempt to base the comedy a couple’s believable young-life crisis. 

Karen Petruska is a film reviewer living in Chicago.

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