Friday, June 19, 2015

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave: Joe Dante's BURYING THE EX

Joe Dante's BURYING THE EX, based on an original screenplay by Alan Trezza, is opening in select theaters across America today and also premiering on VOD. Whereas most Opening Day VOD slots are tagged for Rental Only, I found this one also available for purchase at iTunes - and buying it is advisable if you have any interest at all. Why? Because it's a Joe Dante movie and the set decoration is as densely packed with trivial referentia as the screenplay is fraught with in-jokes, so the treats for people who come back for additional viewings are part of its design. They aren't always on the level where you may be looking, either; some, like the title I've given to this review, in reference to the title of a 1971 Italian horror picture by Emilio P. Miraglia, had to be pointed out to me by my wife!

Anton Yelchin is Max, a young manager of a Los Angeles horror merchandise shop (a quality place, as they display VIDEO WATCHDOG right next to the cash register) who happens to be in a sexually gratifying but otherwise souring relationship with Evelyn (Ashley Greene), a pushy vegan environmentalist. Max is biding his time, waiting for the proverbial right time to tell Evelyn that it's over, but he's sympathetic and caring; she's mourning a recently deceased mother and looking for some permanence in her life. She's also looking to change Max, who finds his Monster Kid obsessions morbid, and she surprises him when he comes home from work to discover the apartment they share suddenly green and girly, with all his precious foreign horror posters ("They're not even in English!") folded (ARGHH!) and put in drawers. (When he shows just a hint of his carefully marshaled anger, the whimpering Evelyn has one of the funniest lines in the movie: "I'm sorry, but it was my mother's birthday and I wanted to have fun!") Their conflicts come into even greater relief one day when they visit a new ice cream store in the neighborhood called I Scream - yep, a horror-themed ice cream shop with many scary flavors - managed by the comely Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), who, unlike Evelyn, gets Max and all his references, and bumps into him again later at a Val Lewton double feature at the New Beverly. Max is on the point of cutting things off with Evelyn when life beats him to the punch: she's hit by a bus while running toward him. He's racked by guilt, nursed along by his horndog half-brother Travis (Oliver Cooper, playing pretty much the same character he played on the last season of CALIFORNICATION), and starts falling for his perfect match, who is conveniently available - until somehow, either by a magic trinket in Max's shop or sheer will power - a zombified Evelyn claws her way out of her plot at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Though undeniably grisly, this is very much a comedy - the term "zom-rom-com" leaps to mind - and on that level, BURYING THE EX pretty much plays by the rules set by other rom-coms of the present era. The characters are for the most part teen comedy caricatures who speak and act outrageously, there's an emphasis on love that is expressed only through sex, and the women are treated pretty badly by the men - and still worse by the other women. This is not to say the film is misogynist, as a couple of critics have charged, because the roles of Evelyn and Olivia are beautifully detailed, sympathetic to the audience if not always to their fellow characters, and very well played. In comedy terms, it does its job and the target audience should be pleased.

That said, because this is a Joe Dante movie, you do get more. Max's torment in the wake of Evelyn's death is genuine and played straight by Anton Yelchin; when she returns from the grave, he is divided between the wish fulfillment and the bad timing of the situation. Ashley Greene is a believable zombie in all meanings of that word - the programmed health nut zealot she was while living, and the rotting reminder of lost love she becomes. Alexandra Daddario plays Olivia as a woman filled with self-doubts and real sexual hunger after surviving a bad relationship of her own, and she is particularly well-cast in contrast to Greene as a type; Evelyn may be green-friendly, but Olivia radiates a more down-to-earth, better match for Max. The success of the film really rides on Anton Yelchin, who plays the lead more or less as the comedy's straight man. After Evelyn is hit by the bus, he sells the wake of that accident with real sensitivity and emotional conflict, his deadpan underscoring the irony of the situation (hasn't she become what's he's always dreamed of, a monster girlfriend?) and a love for this crazy, and now dead, woman that simply cannot transcend their differences as people. Some may watch the film unsure of whether the situation is real or a projection of Max's survivor's guilt, but that's really irrelevant. The situation plays as a very apt metaphor for a love affair that has lingered on well past its expiration date, and the clever dialogue is constantly tossing up phrases that we've all heard or used at various times, which raises the question of why it took so long for this obvious metaphor to be played out in a comedy.

For all that, it's the prevalent Monster Kid culture underlying the story that comes across as its most profound idea. The conflict being played out between Max and Evelyn is foregrounded here in a world where horror has become culturally pervasive. If we look at the film objectively, the stores and shops that figure in its storyline - the  monster-oriented and the ecological - are both rooted in how we, as a people, learn to accommodate different forms of fear. We either fight it as best we can, or befriend it. This is the world pretty much 50 years down the pike from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis setting of Dante's MATINEE (1983), where horror has somehow become ubiquitous and such a touchstone of commonality that it's a touchstone of cool. Meanwhile, the naiveté that was pretty much universal in MATINEE - except for those involved in the sly world of show business and showmanship - is here reserved for "green" people like Evelyn who abhor horror and live under the delusion that their trendy life choices can move the equivalent of a mountain. Though Evelyn's living concerns are deliberately overplayed to look a bit silly, the problems posed by her return from the grave surprisingly touch on issues (more than that, nerves!) that are serious, committed and eternal - and a touch melancholy as well, because they are issues that were of capital importance to the people of MATINEE's time but which don't carry the same weight in today's uncertain world. Things like the importance of keeping a promise. In taking this story to its end, Dante and Trezza must take their characters to some unlikely extremes, sometimes actually cross-cutting between the human extremes of life (as Max and Olivia urgently take their relationship to the next level in a parked car) and death (as finicky undead eater Evelyn suddenly discovers her zombie appetite), but it deftly succeeds in zipping through some dark straits to arrive at a point of warm resolve and a hearty closing laugh.

All in all, this is that rare zombie movie outside the Romero universe to use the zombie concept to some serious ends, and it amounts to Joe Dante's best work since his two outstanding MASTERS OF HORROR episodes of a decade ago, "Homecoming" and "The Screwfly Solution." It is also his best theatrical feature since SMALL SOLDIERS some eighteen years ago, which is no mean achievement. Of course, Jerry Goldsmith isn't around to score for him any more, and his great HOWLING/GREMLINS cameraman John Hora is only on hand for a cameo as an actor, but BURYING THE EX has pretty much everything you could possibly want from a Joe Dante movie, including a welcome cameo by the (supposedly retired) character actor Dick Miller, who gets to say a couple of things that his fans will be quoting whenever they speak of him, for years to come. It is also delightful to see so many homages in the film to Christopher Lee, which are particularly sweet in light of his recent passing. But most of all, this film has that quality you really don't get anywhere else nowadays: that of a nesting doll form of cinema, where the broad comedy contains keen social satire, where the escapism contains reminders of our human (and humane) responsibilities, and where a palpable love for the sheer variety of people and their interests contains a just-as-palpable despair for the ways they sometimes treat each other.

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