Review: The Ex

I don't know how to approach a film that walks the fine line between slapstick and sly. "The Ex" (The Ex) is one of those inexplicable affairs where one side of the film is crafty and funny, while the other side seems born from a committee. It's an unlikable combo in a picture that's in desperate need of assured direction.

After losing his job and fearful of upsetting his pregnant wife (Amanda Peet), Tom Reilly (Zach Braff) accepts employment working for his father-in-law (Charles Grodin, returning to film after a 13-year absence) at a hippy-dippy marketing firm. At first uncomfortable with his co-workers, the situation becomes unbearable when his mentor, Chip (Jason Bateman), reveals himself to be a bitter rival, using his physical disabilities to try and win accounts, the influence of the office, and the heart of Tom's wife.

"The Ex" is a sitcomish effort destined to gather dust as a future weekend afternoon diversion on TBS. On the big screen, the film feels out of place; ill at ease trying to work up a laugh sweat in front of paying customers. Director Jesse Peretz is a former indie film dreamer ("The Chateau") looking to climb his way up the mainstream ladder with this film, but if anything is to be gleaned from "The Ex," it's that perhaps Peretz should stick to cinema that doesn't require the artistic insistence of his financiers.

However bungled the execution, "The Ex" still features some undeniably funny material, but the moments pop out in the weirdest ways. The best laughs tend to bloom during the improvised moments, where the cast lets down their guard and just horses around. Amanda Peet and Charles Grodin seem the most comfortable going off into their own worlds, and they score chuckles where the scripted word just lies down and takes a nap. There's a swarm of fine comedic talent in the film (Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, and Paul Rudd have small supporting roles), but Peretz keeps the natural chemistry of the talent bottled up so he can trot out the lamest of scripted comedic conventions.

Actors like Zach Braff and Jason Bateman do what they can trying to help Peretz sort his vision out, but after 30 minutes, it's clear that "The Ex" isn't going anywhere fresh. The remainder of the film is a battle between sarcasm and pratfalls, with the loser being the viewer, who has to silently observe whiffed comedic concepts left and right; the most blatant misfire being the picture's un-PC scattergun of jokes.

Now, I don't mind tasteless humor, but if a script is going to reach for the brass ring of offensiveness, at least go all the way. "The Ex" paws like a kitten at Chip's disability, using his wheelchair-bound life as a rimshot for many a chortle. Yet, the material is careful never to go too far, which would result in a flaming disaster that either deliciously offends everyone or injects some personality -- no matter how repellent -- into the finished product. Either outcome is infinitely more desirable than watching a movie spend 90 minutes wondering how far it should reach to please.

Filmfodder Grade: C-