Review: Joe Dante tries to spin gold with the thin script for ‘Burying The Ex’

Alan Trezza's screenplay for “Burying The Ex” might as well have had Joe Dante's name above the title from the moment he wrote it, because it is a perfect fit for the filmmaker's sensibilities. Dante's three leads (Anton Yelchin, Ashley Greene, and Alexandra Daddario) are all game for whatever he asks of them, and they seem to be having a blast with the material. There's a slightly muted quality to the film, though, which keeps it from being a complete pleasure, but considering how rarely we get a new film from Dante, I'll take something slight over nothing at all.

There's a hint of “Death Becomes Her” in this film's DNA, and in certain sequences, Dante's live-action cartoon aesthetic is pretty clearly expressed. If anything, I wish the movie pushed some of those ideas further, because it feels like Dante's having fun and so is the cast. Anton Yelchin plays Max, a guy who works at a costume-and-novelties store in Hollywood. He's in a relationship with Evelyn (Greene), and the thing the film gets most wrong is in how she's written before she dies. For the film's second half to pay off, they need to really sell the notion of her as over-the-top obsessive, and that's not really how they play her. She's got some problems in the way she and Max relate, and he's got some justifiable commitment issues. When she dies (it's early in the film, and it's the entire premise, so don't get upset about spoilers), it's not really played as a joke, but it sort of is, but it's sort of not… and that's where it feels like the film doesn't quite connect. It's a tone thing, and to really pull off a movie like this, you've got to have control of the tone from the very start.

That's exactly what makes Dante the right fit for the script, and why the film's overall softness is a little disappointing. There are Dante films where it feels like he pulls off minor miracles of tone like “The 'Burbs” or “Gremlins” or “Matinee,” and he can't pull the same magic trick here because the script just doesn't support it. It feels like scenes take twice as long as they have to, or they never quite land the punches they throw, and more of it feels like shoe leather than actual character writing.

So here's the good news: Anton Yelchin and Alexandra Daddario have excellent chemistry, and when the movie is just about the two of them, it's really charming. The writing for them may still feel flabby, but it doesn't really matter because they sell the most important thing in the film, the mutual attraction that makes them the couple worth rooting for. Also, Dante makes nice use of Los Angeles film geek landmarks like the Hollywood Forever cemetery and the New Beverly cinema.

Because there are no clear rules or stakes to the situation here beyond “Who will Max end up with?”, there's a lack of urgency to anything that happens. I sort of like the decision to not over-explain the magic in the film, but if there are no mechanics at all, and no rules, then there's no fun in watching someone play against them. Looking at other Dante films, “Gremlins” is a great example. Those rules really don't  make sense, but they set up a framework for the movie so when they get broken, we get the pleasure of seeing what the consequences are. And while there are a few fun gross moments, it feels like the film is too restrained for its own good. At the very, very end of the film, after the closing credits, there's an outtake of them shooting one of the nasty gore gags and laughing as they do it. I wish they'd done more of it, because you can practically feel the surge in energy in those moments.

Here's the bottom line: I am glad to see Joe Dante making movies. But in a world where Warner Bros is determined to spend a small mountain of money to make a new “Gremlins” movie, it bugs me that Joe Dante works on the fringe, and that he's not at the top of people's lists. The film's fun, but it's just a reminder of how good he can be when he's given the right support.

“Burying The Ex” is in theaters and on demand this weekend.