Burying the Ex (2014)
Dir. Joe Dante
Written by Alan Trezza
Starring Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene, Alexandra Daddario
Some things were just not meant to be. They seem like they should work; maybe even get by for awhile, if you really pretend as hard as you can that they’re working. But then something isn’t quite there, a few minor pieces don’t fall into place quite right and the more times the machine goes round, the harder it is to ignore that the wheels are coming off. Eventually there’s just no getting around that fact and the whole thing crumbles, sometimes even more bitterly than it would have had you not tried to pretend things were OK. Communism, for example. Relationships. The presidential aspirations of a whole lot of Republicans this year. And, of course, movies. BURYING THE EX concerns itself with the second example on that list, but, alas, eventually finds itself embodying the final one. Despite the worthy pun of the title and the reliably sure hand of genre ace Joe Dante (GREMLINS, THE HOWLING) on the wheel, this turns out to be a pretty toothless rom-zom-com marred by a distinct lack of charm.
The premise is so simple you almost certainly gleaned it from the title. Wimpy nerd Max (Anton Yelchin, FRIGHT NIGHT REMAKE) has a gorgeous but domineering girlfriend named Evelyn (Ashley Greene, CBGB, TWILIGHT) who pushes him around and doesn’t get (or seem to even know about) his love of horror movies, hipster nostalgia porn, bacon, or his slovenly half-brother (Oliver Cooper, PROJECT X) who uses their living room as a place to bang cheap floozies. She is therefore, in the eyes of the movie, basically history’s worst monster. When Max meets the manic pixie dreamgirl proprietor of an ironic ice cream parlour (Alexandra Daddario, the first season of True Detective) who supports his dream of opening his own novelty-horror kitsch shop (he already works at one, but doesn’t like the store’s catchphrase, a problem the movie treats as legitimate against all possible odds) it’s love immediately, but his current beau doesn’t take a shine to the newcomer and Max is too chickenshit to dump her. Fortunately, before he’s forced to actually behave like a mature, responsible adult, Evelyn gets crushed by a bus. She’s got no friends or family or life outside Max, apparently, so we don’t have to feel too uncomfortable with the movie’s perspective that this is a blessing in disguise.
Unfortunately for the budding lovebirds, Evelyn isn’t quite done with Max, and returns from the grave as a superpowered zombie who still thinks she and Max are “forever.” And rather than just tell her that being a rotting supernatural monster is a dealbreaker, Max decides that a better idea would be to not tell anyone, and have wacky Three’s Company style hijinks while he tries to bang the new girl without his undead former love realizing she’s getting cheated on. When this proves impossible, he appeals to his wacky half-brother to kill her with an ax while he goes on a date, with predictably negative results.
This is all, I suppose, perfectly serviceable fodder for a bubblegum horror/comedy throwaway, but despite a likable cast the whole enterprise rapidly crashes and burns in a haze of lazy stereotypes and difficult-to-relate-to behavior. The nominal hero is such a spineless, entitled whiner that even Anton Yelchin can’t make him likable, and that’s quite a feat because almost no one is more inherently likeable than Anton Yelchin. It’s a given in a romantic comedy that for no reason the guy won’t explain what’s going on with his wacky situation, and will consequently seem like a douchebag, generating the necessary conflict for a movie to continue. But even with that understanding going in, this dude’s lack of action on the subject of his returned zombie girlfriend is so aberrant and irresponsible it’s impossible to ignore. He’s so mewling and passive that it eventually becomes impossible to root for him, and you gradually come to resent him for his totally unearned successes. When he tries to fob the whole thing off on his brother and (spoiler) ends up getting him killed (while he heads off to try and get laid), it’s finally completely impossible to sympathize with this selfish piece of shit anymore.* Why in god’s name does this fuckin’ hipster weasel have two gorgeous ladies fighting over him? Must be a pheromone thing.
I suppose I’m especially sensitive to Max’s cowering, self-centered sense of persecuted entitlement because, in lieu of actual jokes, the movie elects to try that last refuge of a scoundrel, pimping cheap nostalgia. We’re supposed to like Max because he’s just like the only possible demographic for this movie: he’s an overeducated, underachieving horror nerd whose entire life seems to revolve around classic horror movie paraphernalia. He’s got original imported Italian posters all over his apartment (the audience’s “last straw” moment with Evelyn is obviously when he returns home to find she’s thrown them all out and redecorated… “they weren’t even in English!” she explains, as though that was something anyone would ever say) and he is never more than a few feet away from some kind of screen showing a classic horror movie, which the camera lovingly moons over. I noticed FRIGHT NIGHT ORIGINAL (a little meta-joke, since Yelchin starred in the remake), CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE and I think I remember HORROR OF DRACULA too, (though I can't confirm that). Not exactly deeps cuts, there. He’s watching WHIP AND THE BODY in his place of business, though, so maybe he’s not all bad. And someone has a GORE GORE GIRLS DVD.
But the point is this is a movie which could not be more shameless in pandering to guys exactly like me --hell, they even trot out a location shot at Johnny Ramone’s grave, that’s how bad they want to suck up to me (seems a little tasteless, but I guess he’s been dead ten years now)--, but I think it kinda ruffles my feathers because it also seems to pander to the very worst stereotypes of my people. The movie assumes that we, just like the characters in the movie, will automatically be soulmates just because we like the same movies and posters. I can’t resist being pandered to, of course, but this feels particularly patronizing, and kind of weirdly bitter in its singleminded perspective. Horror-loving Max and his vegetarian activist “ex” (who is not actually technically his ex, since he’s never told her that he doesn’t like her anymore and is already dating someone else) are not just different people with different interests -- he’s right, and she is, as he says, “a stark raving lunatic.” The movie treats the fact that she doesn’t like ice cream or bacon as a character flaw, while it sees his arrested-development fetishization of Hammer posters and out-of-production breakfast cereal (?!) not as loveable quirks but as a legitimate and all-consuming lifestyle.
It just strikes me as uncomfortably self-serving to write these characters this way, validating the most narrow-minded kind of horror nerd fandom and tacitly suggesting that people who don’t understand why you’d want to spend every hour of the day watching corny British horror from the 60’s aren’t just different, aren’t just wrong, but are actively persecuting you. Evelyn is a little abrasive and pushy, I admit, but Max is so unassertive about what he wants that you can hardly blame her -- and he’s at least as flippantly dismissive of her interests as she is of his, if not more so. And yet, the movie has nothing but sympathy for him and nothing but contempt for her. It’s so arbitrarily one-sided in its portrayal of this couple that it feels a little unfair and mean-spirited. The movie’s a little too lightweight and generic to really be worth thinking too deep about, but its weirdly persecuted point of view and unpleasant demonization of the dead girlfriend leave kind of a bitter taste over the proceedings.
Still, it’s not all bad. There’s a smattering of solid chuckles in there, mostly asides like a religious metal outfit called “The Christian Slaters” or the horny brother’s costume-based come-on’s (“Once you go Norse, you’ll have no remorse,” he offers while wearing a viking get-up). And there’s a solid undercurrent of cartoonish gross-out zombie gags, as one would hope from reliable old Joe Dante (Evelyn vomits embalming fluid and can now achieve some absolutely unnatural yoga poses). But the script is the real problem here; it was adapted from a short film of the same name, and really struggles to fill the added runtime of a full-length movie. Kinda a shame, since I feel like there’s plenty of fun stuff to do with this concept, but the script is relentlessly sit-commy, stubbornly avoiding any possibility for imagination or even decent horror (for a movie so obsessed with classic horror standards, its structure is solidly that of a rom-com; no attempt is ever made at even token scares outside the decent workaday zombie makeup by HELLRAISER artist Gary Tunnicliffe). It probably doesn't help that it also looks like a sitcom, thanks to the flat cinematography of Jonathan Hall (who also lensed a lot of the Teen Wolf TV series, which probably explains it.)
Dante manages the exact right tone for something like this, and he’s working with a more-than-capable cast, but the jokes mostly aren’t there. Daddario is wasted on a standard issue manic pixie dreamgirl (she like the same old movies he likes! she fucks of the first date, so she’s a free spirit! they belong together!) but I gotta say, if the movie has an unsung hero it’s Ashley Greene in the showiest role as the zombie ex. She walks a very delicate line -- effectively smothering and over-the-top in one moment but kind of likable in the next -- which keeps the drama but being entirely one dimensional. The script has nothing but contempt for her, but Greene’s performance is energetic and animating (ha) enough to sustain the movie. She’s got a good energy and veers between bitchy, endearing, and threatening with a reckless abandon that makes her a live wire to watch. None of the things she does are especially interesting, but the performance sells it and drags the movie along behind. Oliver Cooper deserves a mention for comfortably serving up the movie’s easiest win as Max’s wacky lothario brother, but his character feels a bit extraneous to the plot and Greene manages to flank him and walk away with the movie by the time we reach the finish line. If it works at all --and it only intermittently does-- it’s entirely though Greene’s fearlessness and Dante’s charmingly goofy tone. But even when it’s working, it’s hard to ignore how disappointingly tepid and unambitious it feels.
On the other hand, it has a Dick Miller cameo, so it can’t be all bad. And there’s no denying that title is a pretty tight pun. But hopefully Dante’s next film will give him a little more to work with.
*when he finds his brother dead and half-eaten, he gets all serious and tells Evelyn this is an unforgivable betrayal, which would be justified except that the whole reason bro is there anyway is because Max sent him to murder her! What a hypocrite!
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