Written by: Alan Trezzo
Directed by: Joe Dante
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene, and Alexandra Daddario
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Some relationships just won't die.
Having never met Joe Dante and only having his films to go by, I can only assume he’s among one of the sweetest people on the planet. Even when his movies feature mutant piranha chewing swimmers’ faces off or a woman struggling with her transformation into a werewolf, a certain playfulness underlies the grisly proceedings. His movies especially channel nostalgia in a playful manner by counterbalancing the darkness and taking the edge off, so to speak. You mostly come away from his films with a sort of retro sense of comfort. With Burying the Ex, this back-and-forth is most pronounced, as you can practically feel Dante attempting to outrun an off-putting, outdated script, one that winds up winning despite the director’s best effort.
It starts innocuously enough, if not a bit too sitcom-y: Halloween store clerk Max (Anton Yelchin) has been seeing girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene) long enough to consider moving in with her. Their courtship has also been long enough for certain aspects of her personality to grate, such as her obsession with eco-friendliness and her controlling behavior. When it becomes clear it’s not working out, Max’s slob half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper) convinces him to split with Evelyn, who winds up being plowed to death en route to the break-up spot. Wracked with guilt, Max spends the next few weeks brooding in his apartment until he bumps into ice cream artist Olivia (Alexandra Daddario) who shares his passion for cult movies in a way Evelyn never did. Their eventual romp through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery awakes Max’s ex, however, as Evelyn—apparently with the assistance of a supernatural trinket in Max’s store—returns from the dead, ready to resume their relationship.
Finding the appeal in this isn’t difficult, even if the rom-zom-com sub-genre has been exhausted recently, and, if anyone can breathe life into a stale concept, it’s Dante. Alan Trezza’s screenplay—apparently self-satisfied by the conceit itself—doesn’t dig deep enough to actually uncover the laughs, though. Preferring instead to tread the surface, Trezza settles for the most obvious and juvenile gags at every turn and paints on the broadest possible canvas. Every character is a one-note stereotype and the relationships between each defined by the thinnest of dynamics: when Evelyn and Olivia meet before the former’s demise, there is an immediate, unearned contempt between them for no other reason than the story requiring it.
The exchange speaks to the disconcertingly and unfairly mean-spirited portrayal of Evelyn. Reduced to a shrill, one-note shrew, Evelyn sometimes borders on psychotic and begins to become an actual villain before she returns as a zombie simply by having the gall to repaint Max’s apartment without his permission. When she damages his vintage horror movie posters in the process, the film immediately sides with Max and Travis’s perception that Evelyn is a raging bitch. She’s not a character—she’s a roadblock for a couple of bros who sling around terms like “broad” and expect relationships to be easy.
While the film is kinder to Daddario’s Olivia, she’s no less a paper construct, yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose sole purpose is to make an otherwise well-off dude’s life even better. Only in this case, she’s not even here to impart some wisdom or Life Lessons but rather to feed Max’s delusions and serve as an ally in the battle against his undead ex. Her defining qualities as a person are her love for horror movies and her willingness to have sex with Max. She’s the Nice Girl to Evelyn’s Psycho Hose Beast, the opposite end of a spectrum that only serves to prop up a fantasy world where relationships thrive simply due to a shared interest in Frute Brute and are doomed to fail the minute a woman fails to see how a Halloween store might be viable employment.
Many of Dante’s films feel inspired by the 50s, but Burying the Ex feels like it hails straight from that decade without any attempt at subverting these moldy tropes. At least he doesn’t sit idly by and allow the toxic misogyny to completely consume the film by asserting a light touch in the well-pitched performances, particularly the natural turns by Daddario and Yelchin, both of whom remain low-key despite the farce unfolding around them. If not for the underdeveloped screenplay that does them no favors, you might even like Max and Olivia and root for their relationship to thrive.
Instead, you’re sort of left thinking that Evelyn has been wrongfully spited: had Max simply had the guts to break up with her instead of putting it off, she might still be alive. Even in death, she proves to be the liveliest character here, as Greene’s wild-eyed, over-the-top energy gives the film the sort of rambunctious, electric pulse typical of Dante. She’s the villain, but her desperation to cling to her relationship is somehow more relatable and human than anything Max and Olivia go through—by the end, their biggest conflict is whether or not he’ll be able to open his own Halloween store adjacent to her ice cream shop in L.A. I wish I had these sort of problems.
Dante also deploys nostalgia like a weapon to fend off the unseemly undertones: vintage horror imagery abounds in posters, television monitors, a Halloween night screening of Night of the Living Dead. Max and Olivia’s meet-cute occurs at a Val Lewton double feature at the New Beverly, a preeminent L.A. repertory house whose recognizable marquee immediately engenders good will in any capacity. Max virtually lives in a Monster Kid bubble that allows him to work at a horror-themed store and watch Bava’s The Whip and the Body while on the clock. It’s a fantasy take on Los Angeles, albeit one that you certainly want to believe in. For once, however, this unleashed nostalgia feels more like a distraction rather than an embellishment, existing mostly to divert the audience’s attention from the weak, noxious script.
Other nicely staged flourishes also allow brief glimpses of vintage Dante, such as a scene where the aghast Max surveys his redecorated apartment to the tune of Psycho stings and a knock-down, drag-out climactic scuffle that mixes gore with physical comedy. Dante also stages Evelyn’s resurrection with a cool, vintage verve, as she digs from beneath a fog-shrouded graveyard to the tune of an old school, choral shrieks and bells, a nice nod in the direction of The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave, which might be the most subtle and clever gag in the whole film.
Burying the Ex otherwise sticks to the surface level by mining outdated tropes for even more outdated humor. It’s a testament to Dante’s skill (or maybe just his good will) that the final product winds up feeling mostly harmless rather than completely toxic. Still, you expect more from Dante, whose career has been made subverting this sort of movie—it’s a shame he couldn’t transform it into something a bit wittier or satirical by truly exploring or upending the obvious metaphor at play. Where many of Dante’s previous efforts have felt fashionably retro, Burying the Ex simply feels regressive. It has little time or room for sweetness, no matter how much its director insists on it.
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