Since making the leap from cult comic actor to annoyingly ubiquitous movie star with Meet The Parents, Ben Stiller has enjoyed a veritable monopoly on leading roles in desperate comedies about schlubby Jewish men undergoing gauntlets of personal, professional, and sexual humiliation. Until now. The awful new comedy The Ex serves notice that Zach Braff is more than willing to swoop in and accept the kind of roles Stiller probably considers beneath his dignity—or at least his pay grade. Where Garden State and The Last Kiss explored the doe-eyed, tremblingly sensitive emo side of Braff's persona, The Ex fruitlessly exploits his glib quipster side. It isn't an improvement.
Braff leads an insanely overqualified cast as a daydreaming chef whose forthrightness leads to serial unemployment. After he gets fired yet again, Braff and wife/new mother Amanda Peet move from New York to Ohio so Braff can take a job with Peet's father (Charles Grodin) at a New Age advertising firm where the reigning spirit of fun and whimsy proves soul-crushing to Braff. At his new gig, Braff works under Jason Bateman, a wheelchair-bound monster whose thin veneer of conviviality masks an Iago-like core of pure, scheming evil. Bateman sets out to destroy Braff and seduce the bored, housebound Peet, leading to an ugly orgy of strained slapstick violence where every hit and pratfall registers with the ear-splitting boom of a space-shuttle launch.
What makes The Ex so maddening is that it's filled with promising ideas and talented comic actors (Grodin, Bateman, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Amy Poehler, Donal Logue, Fred Armisen, Amy Adams), yet it never comes close to being funny. There's ample opportunity for satire in an ad agency that clings to the spaciest aspects of the '90s dot-com boom as cover for business as usual, but the workplace dreariness only adds to a stifling air of joylessness. In The Ex, Ohio could double as the ninth circle of Hell: everyone's a jerk or a creep, including Braff and Peet, whom the film views as nice and smart in spite of their consistently stupid, selfish, thoughtless behavior. It's good to have Grodin back onscreen after an extended absence; it's just a shame it has to be in this dreary graveyard of wasted opportunities.