Reviews

Sexism Just Won't Die in 'Burying the Ex'

Playing like a "Rom-Zom-Com" helmed by Judd Apatow, Burying the Ex suffers from a repository of sexist tropes, a somewhat redeeming ending notwithstanding.


Burying the Ex

Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene, Alexandra Daddario, Oliver Cooper
Studio: RLJ/Image Entertainment
Year: 2014
US date: 2015-06-19 (Limited release)

Burying the Ex follows the travails of downtrodden dude-bro Max (Anton Yelchin), henpecked by his nightmare of a girlfriend, Evelyn (Ashley Greene). He finds he can’t be rid of her, even in death. Evelyn rises from her grave after somehow finding out her ex might be moving on with the fun, sexy, and free-spirited Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), someone much cooler than her. In Burying the Ex, the women call one another "bitches" and rip out fistfuls of hair (and chunks of decaying scalp), reinforcing the stereotype that we’re all jealous and boy crazy. Burying the Ex implicitly censures both Olivia and Evelyn for asking anything of Max; we’re asked to sympathize with Max as Evelyn becomes ever more inhuman and Olivia becomes needier.

Viewed charitably, Burying the Ex might form a comment on the terrifying performances of gender imposed on both Max and Evelyn. The film trades in sitcom tropes but undermines them just a little through its frequent cinematic references to female exploitation in the horror genre and to Max’s general lack of machismo. We’re asked to sympathize with Max as Evelyn becomes ever more inhuman and Olivia expresses a recognizable need for reassurance. Because being a 'Cool Girl' means never asking anything awkward of the man in your life.

After a splashy, pulpy Marvel-esque set of opening titles, the film opens with Max waking to find his schlub half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) naked in the living room with two equally naked women, having just achieved his first threesome. For Travis, think equal parts Ben Stone (Knocked Up) and Barney Stinson, a lothario who claims to love his conquests while remaining terrified that any of them might find out where he lives. It's unclear whether Burying The Ex aims to mock or condone his type, but Barney Stinson's a cultural touchstone for online pick up artists and MRAs who seem oblivious to the joke made at their expense. Such approbation, however ignorant, suggests a proportion of this movie's potential audience might take Travis and Max both at face value.

Such acceptance is encouraged by the fact that Travis and Evelyn barely tolerate one another. Moreover, Max appears, at first glance and compared to the arrested adolescent Travis, to be a less objectionable individual, seeing as Max says he wants to build a grown-up relationship with a woman. Max's entrepreneurial goals might also seem more appealing to a potential partner like Evelyn; unlike Travis, who seems content to be barely paid to hold up signs on street corners, Max dreams a little bigger.

These dreams don't include a brother sneaking into his home to have sex on the living room floor, but still, Evelyn’s method of dealing with the problem suggests how difficult she might be as a partner. She manages to express disgust for Travis and slut-shame his partners in a single sentence, advising them to seek the nearest "church or Planned Parenthood". She goes on to intimidate both Max and Travis into acquiescence, allowing no discussion of the changes she’s imposed on Max’s lifestyle.

As we see Evelyn as controlling, we also see Max as emasculated. Ever forgiving and non-committal, he's quick to defend Evelyn when others criticize her, and repeatedly trampled on by his unseen (female) boss. That he works at a horror-themed novelty store and nurses a devotion to old horror films hardly make him seem more virile, though it may make him appealing in an indie stripes kind of way. Evelyn, for her part, is an eco-blogger and an easy target for the film’s satirical swipes. It’s hardly difficult to lampoon a woman whose job includes "saving the world one blog at a time" and who eats lots of tofu.

Such broad characterizations would be harmless, if hackneyed, if only they were not followed by Evelyn's further portrayal as manipulative, insecure, and weepy when crossed. Once Max makes the decision to break up with her, after being thrust into too many situations where he must apologize for her behavior, Evelyn meets with an unpleasant accident, whereupon the Burying the Ex lurches from cartoon violence to real feeling, though without the apparent effortlessness of that zombie pastiche by which all others are measured, Shaun of the Dead.

It's also something of an effort that Evelyn is set in direct contrast with Olivia, a punkish but feminine Ramones fan. She just gets Max’s love of horror and B-movies, is open about her sexuality, and eats burgers. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t have Max jump into bed with Olivia too soon, allowing him to mourn Evelyn and for the chance they might have had to find common ground.

When Max and Olivia do eventually end up on a date, a remarkably healthy-looking Evelyn emerges from her burial plot, by way of an unusual figurine in Max’s workplace with mystical properties. Of course, this happens just before Olivia expresses doubts about whether she "should" have sex with Max on this first date, riffing on body-horror films that conflate sensuality with moral judgment and violent death, an idea directly referenced by the film's name-checking Cat People as background for this scene and by Evelyn rediscovering her sexual and other appetites through '70s porn.

On paper, Max's dilemma sounds like it's made for Joe Dante, who has made both cheerfully anarchic destruction body horror (Gremlins, Innerspace) and Hell-is-other-people horror (The ‘Burbs). All stand him in good stead for the energetic, gory final third of this film, in which Max finds his inner action hero and the life he’s always wanted. Here the movie seems like a "Rom-Zom-Com" helmed by Judd Apatow, complete with a redemption. Burying the Ex leans heavily on its affection for Max, whose self-discoveries give the movie a modicum of purpose. When he realizes that he can’t defeat Evelyn without Olivia’s help or without appealing to Evelyn’s emotional vulnerabilities, we find that Evelyn deserves at least a little of our sympathy.

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