Burying the Ex
We shouldn’t have to wait five years between Joe Dante movies, even when the results are as close to middling as he’s ever got. Burying the Ex follows the example of The Hole in sticking to the received script and reining in the director’s more eccentric, cartoonish touches. But where The Hole had a good creepy story to tell, here Dante’s stuck with something decidedly more pedestrian and familiar; the possessive partner who won’t let a little thing like death end the relationship.
Dante has compared it to EC Comics fare, and the macabre twist has something of that. It also arrives in the wake of other romzom(com)s Life After Beth and Warm Bodies. At times Burying the Ex is like a less witty Death Becomes Her by way of an early Buffy episode, with a sprinkling of post-Apatow crudity. The latter doesn’t seem very Dante at all, and the presence of Oliver Cooper (Duchovny’s son in the final, fetid season of Californication) is a fair indication this is largely aiming for the nutsack in terms of humour. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the material is beneath Dante, but… kind of, it is. Given this script as a starting point he could surely fashioned something much more satisfying.
But I guess beggars can’t be choosers (Dante ran a less than responsive crowdsourcing campaign during the shoot to get more cash for CGI). The most amusing and complementary aspect of its cheapness is the burial scene, where only five people show up, and three of those come with the half-brother; a commentary on how unloved her vengeful self-righteous eco-vegan (those bastard self-righteous eco-vegans!) is.
Max (Anton Yelchin), a very Dante-esque employee of a horror-themed store, is in a relationship with the dictatorial Evelyn (Ashley Greene), and it’s all becoming a bit much for him (the last straw sees her folding his prized vintage movie posters – though why he didn’t have them framed is anyone’s guess). When he accidentally wishes/promises that they will always be together, a newly delivered Satan doll genie grants it. And when Evelyn is hit by a bus, and subsequently interred, Max discovers he definitely isn’t free to get on with his life and a blossoming romance with Olivia (Alexandra Daddario, as the fantasy horror geek girlfriend; she’s a horror geek herself). Worse still, Evelyn decides “If I kill you, then we get to live happily ever after“.
Death as a metaphor for a doomed relationship is so well worn it needs serious invigorating to fly, but for too much of the (brief) running rime, Alan Trezza’s script devotes itself to the laboured comedy of concealment, as Max does his darnedest not to let anyone know Evelyn has come back. If the writing was sharp enough this might pass muster, an update of any number of ‘60s fantasy sitcom scenarios where a desperate protagonist hides out-there occurrences with hilarious consequences (I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, The Addams Family etc.) Instead Burying the Ex gets caught in a holding pattern rather than exploring its numerous other possible options.
Certainly, keeping Olivia out of the loop for so long limits the scope and reduces her to a romantic cypher (a shame as Daddario, memorably of True Detective, is an exuberant presence) and the picture only really builds up a head of steam when Cooper’s Travis, Max’s half-brother, learns the truth. The romzomcom side of the picture is its least illustrious element, even though Yelchin (affable, but less engaging than in the superior oddball fantasy Odd Thomas) and Greene (embracing the opportunity to bitch out and ugly up) bounce well off each other.
When Max investigates A Guide for Ridding the Unwelcome Undead for means to permanently off his ex, there’s an intimation this might go down a more engaging, lunatic path. But Max – a huge horror buff – needs Travis to suggest means of dispensing with Evelyn, and the late hour most obvious method comes via Olivia. Part of the fun of The Howling was playing with the rich tapestry of werewolf lore, but Ex’s attitude to its fantasy elements is at best arbitrary; there’s no Eerie, Indiana fun to the whys and wherefores of the Satan Genie, and Max’s response to the discovery of Evelyn resurrection is almost perfunctory.
If the dialogue is frequently obvious (“I dug myself out of a grave for you”, “You were never this busy when I was alive”, “I sort of threw her under a bus“, “You broke my heart Max“: “I know, but it’s not beating any more“), Dante has a lot of fun with the increasingly gross deterioration of Evelyn’s physical state, recalling both Death Becomes Her and Burton’s Frankenweenie (‘There’s a freaking Tim Burton movie in your living room”). She slips on the carpet and breaks her neck, doing yoga is very much not a good idea, and as her teeth gradually yellow, so CGI flies start circling her.
When Travis shows up at the door, having volunteered to kill her, you can feel Dante shifting into a groove he’s been struggling for until this point, with even his usual asides and references failing to make do. There’s nothing particularly genius about this latest in the line of boorish movie vulgarians, but Cooper has much better timing and delivery than, say Seth Rogen (actually, let’s not say Seth Rogen) and lines like “Well hello Evelyn, you’re looking especially morbid this evening” and “I can’t text dump her. We live together” are as close as the picture comes to vintage Dante.
The movie references come thick and fast, although Wild Things… II is much funnier than yet another Psycho visual gag (really Joe?) Having the comedy zombie sidekick survive is also overused by about a decade at this point (and why exactly does a sword finally do for Evelyn when stabbing her in the brain didn’t work?) There are clips aplenty, from Plan 9 from Outer Space to House on Haunted Hill to (of course, and redundantly) Night of the living Dead and… The Gore Gore Girls. Dante even has room for a few cameos from pals; Dick Miller, of course (gloriously entering from the crapper and asking, “Are you pulling my pickles, funny boy?”), Archie Hahn and John Hora.
It’s a shame Hora isn’t still working as a cinematographer on Dante pictures. Jonathan Hall does a serviceable job, as does Joseph LoDuca with the score (the Evil Dead composer; at its best there’s something of that energy). Dante couldn’t make a completely meritless movie any more than Terry Gilliam, but there’s a definite lack of inspiration on a fundamental level here. Even something as wholly unhappy (for the director) as Looney Tunes has an irresistible verve driving (for all the number of times its gags fall flat). Burying the Ex might be the closest Dante has come to an unadorned movie since his earliest, similarly low budget days with Piranha. The only problem with that being, Alan Trezza is no John Sayles.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.