"The Ex" plays like a network sitcom with a few four-letter words thrown in that wouldn't make it past the censors. Watching it, one almost can sense the actors holding after jokes for a laugh track that's not there. It isn't just the script (penned by David Guion and Michael Handelman) that feels ready-made for the small screen, either. The direction by Jesse Peretz is flat and unambitious, making use of a minimum of locations (mostly interiors). The editing is awkward, with scenes often starting and stopping without an entryway or exit. And the look of the picture, with muted color schemes and an overall faded appearance, gives away that the film has sat on the shelf for a while and might have even accidentally been left out in the sun too long.
No doubt because he stars in a long-running television comedy of his own, Zach Braff (TV's "Scrubs," 2006's "The Last Kiss
") is fully at ease in this sort of role. He plays Tom Reilly, a man who thinks with his heart rather than his heada hard truth that gets him fired from his job as a Manhattan chef the very same day that beloved wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) goes into labor with their son. Ready to make a change and start fresh, Tom, Sofia and baby Oliver move to the suburbs of Ohio, where Tom promptly gets a job working for Sofia's father (Charles Grodin) at a quirky advertising company. Put under the guidance of coworker Chip Sanders (Jason Bateman), Tom senses right away that something is a little off about this wheelchair-bound go-getter. It's bad enough that Sofia was friends with him in high school, but even worse to realize that Chip is a passive-aggressive sociopath whose biggest goal is to sabotage Tom's job and family life while wickedly wrapping everyone else around his deceptive little finger.
Originally going under the more appropriate moniker "Fast Track," "The Ex" doesn't make a whole lot of sense as a title. There is no ex in the movie at all, as Chip, while having slept with Sofia a single time years ago, is more of an old acquaintance than anything. Furthermore, there is never any question that Sofia isn't interested in Chip sexually, so that potential threat of a romance blossoming is nonexistent. Instead, "The Ex" focuses more on Chip's adversarial mission to make Tom's life at the office a living hell. He steals Tom's winning pitches and passes them off as his own. He forces Tom into leading a client meeting about a topic he knows nothing about. He sets Tom up by having him participate in a wheelchair basketball game where none of the other players know he isn't physically handicapped. And so it goes. Meanwhile, Sofia struggles to get used to being a stay-at-home mother and is particularly rubbed the wrong way by a judgmental neighborhood mom (Amy Adams) who talks her into participating in an ill-advised parenting class.
The pieces of the plot that make up "The Ex" are short on rhythm and momentum, again coming off as if they would work better in the confines of a half-hour sitcom. Tom's plight, however unfortunate, could be solved so much quicker if only he said the right things and actually explained what Chip was doing to him. Instead, his attempts at revealing Chip's dark side are halfhearted until the end, and the other characters conveniently are instructed to cut him off just before he gets to said explanation. On the upside, Tom's and Sofia's marriage is presented in a realistic fashion, unidealized and not always filled with sunshine, but built on a love and trust that one doesn't always see in lightweight films of this kind.
As Tom, Zach Braff is well-equipped to juggle the broad humor and sporadic dramatics of a man whose existence spins out of control at the sniveling hands of an antagonistic coworker. As that very villain, Jason Bateman (2007's "Smokin' Aces
") is great at being bad, although perhaps more creepy than amusing. If this were a horror movie, Chip Sanders would likely turn out to be Satan in disguise in a late-story twist. As Sofia, the woman caught in the middle, Amanda Peet (2005's "A Lot Like Love
") is likable if untested by the underwritten part. She, like Braff, has perfect comic timing, and it is their ability to let loose that goes a long way when the story itself lags. Nearly all supporting roles are filled with recognizable faces, with Charles Grodin very good as Sofia's harried dad, Mia Farrow (2006's "The Omen
") wasted as her daffy mom, and Amy Adams (2005's "Junebug
") a scene-stealer as a nightmarish soccer mom.
As a theatrically-released motion picture, "The Ex" isn't worth the effort to go out and see. As something to be sampled on DVD in the future, the threadbare "The Ex" will probably go down more smoothly. There are, indeed, a fair share of very funny moments, and the dialogue is frequently sharp-edged and acerbic, sort of a cross between "Friends" and "The Office." Director Jesse Peretz yearns for a darkly comedic tone, but usually pulls back before really going for the jugular. When he does go all out, as in a scene where Tom goes to extreme lengths to prove that Chip isn't really crippled, the results are at uproarious odds with the tameness of the rest of the project. All things considered, "The Ex" is entertaining in spots, but thoroughly expendable and inconsequential.