The Ex (2007)

2007-05-11 (General release)

Zach Braff just gets more annoying by the minute. As Tom, a New York City chef who’s fired on the very day his high-powered lawyer wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) gives birth to their first child, Braff brings what he always does — a basic mopey charm, some sarcasm, even a rudimentary self-awareness. Her plan is stay home and be a good mom. His plan is support the family in the style of the small but fashionable New York City apartment where the couple first appears in The Ex, which looks like a Ben Stiller movie not much adapted for Braff. She’s a bit of a controlling sort, searching for names in a book. He likes to let things happen. Still, they seem happy enough with one another: he amuses her and she’s wonderfully energetic, as Amanda Peet tends to be.

And then Tom does it. Imagining that he’s up for a promotion at the restaurant where he works for the domineering and self-aggrandizing stereotype of a head chef named Leon (Paul Rudd), he instead takes up the losing cause of an underling abused by the boss. No sooner has he called Leon an “asshole” and squirted him with red sauce, than Tom is fired and answering his cell phone: Sofia’s in labor. Worse, at the hospital she’s bonding with her nurse by joking about Tom’s penis, which “has a little curve to it.” Ha ha ha. And oh by the way, I’m jobless.

This would-be premise sends the couple to the small Ohio town where Sofia grew up (and from which she worked hard to escape, suggesting at the very least that panic over the baby is skewing her logic). Here Tom can work alongside her father Bob (Charles Grodin) at a crunchy ad firm (run by an occasionally seen Donal Logue, toting a mountain bike). Amiable as he tries to be, Tom instantly ignites the jealousy of Chip (Jason Bateman), the seeming “ex” of the title (though Sofia claims they had a one-night-only stand in high school, he’s apparently obsessed about it ever since). To underline their “connection,” Chip greets Sofia — who arrives at the office with baby on hip — by asking her to relive their cheerleading routine, whereby he lifts her up by her crotch while gazing ickily at Tom.

The competition proceeds apace, as Chip proceeds to rile, insult, cheat, and challenge Tom at every turn. Going so far as to steal Tom’s husband-and-wife photo from his desk (and cut Tom’s face out of it), Chip exploits every advantage he can devise, including his being in a wheelchair, which makes any sign of worry or meanness on Tom’s part look churlish. You, however, are privy to Chip’s bad behavior from Tom’s perspective, which means that when Chip has him play a murderball style basketball game with his buddies, you’re not surprised when Chip sets it up so Tom looks like he’s deliberately fooled the other players into thinking he’s actually unable to walk (their response to the “deceit” is predictably furious). And, when Sofia beams, “Dad loves Chip, he’s like the son he never had,” you’re bound to think she’s dim and Tom’s right, that indeed Chip does “seem a little angry.”

Amanda Peet and Jason Bateman

Predictably, the boys are partnered on a campaign for big-money-fast-food-chain-store (why the ostensibly health-conscious agency is working on this campaign is not clear). When Chip goes for his usual cartoon character approach, here a “Mexican” (read: racist) pickle, Tom discovers a singular homegrown talent, Wesley (Lucien Maisel), a neighbor boy who can eat a hamburger in one, perverse-looking bite. The goofiness of the latter wins the team’s approval and Chip takes umbrage, such that his sabotaging turns increasingly ugly.

The fact that Chip has everyone else fooled but Tom sets up a common dynamic, whereby rube caricatures are set against “urban” sophistication. Tom has surely shown childish inclinations before — as when he squirted Leon — in Ohio, the silliness turns downright mean, like without the fun or intelligence. The more Tom frets that he’s an inadequate provider, dad, husband, and team player down at the office, the more the film makes the folks around him look wrong-headed in order to redeem him.

Most distressingly, all the focus on the boys’ rivalry takes focus off Peet, who appears intermittently becoming increasingly bored with her chosen lot. This especially because the local moms’ group, headed by preachy Abby (Amy Adams), is designed for the sorts of moms who show up as props in sit-coms and sit-commish movies: the classes are infuriatingly dull, designed to drive Sofia to reclaim her wit and prerogative at last. At least her outburst suggests she will escape (again) from the bind in which her mother Amelia (Mia Farrow) finds herself. Barely able to put together sentences, Amelia seems the ultimate object lesson for staying put. “Sofia, Sofia!” you want to shout, “Get out now. Get out of all of it. Please.”

RATING 3 / 10