by Patrick Bromley
I love Joe Dante. LOVE Joe Dante. A new film from him is cause for celebration, especially since it's only the third feature he's directed in the 2000s (the other two being Looney Tunes: Back in Action in 2003 and The Hole in 2010). And because I'm such a fan and because any new movie from him feels like a gift, I desperately want to like Burying the Ex, his new zombie romantic comedy -- or zom-rom-com as I think it's being referred to in the marketing materials. I want to love it. I can't quite make it there.
Anton Yelchin plays Max, an obsessive horror fan who works at a horror-themed novelty shop called Bloody Mary's and has dreams of opening his own. He's dating Evelyn (Ashley Greene), an uptight environmentalist who doesn't share any of his same passions. Their relationship is complicated further by the appearance of Alexandra Daddario's Olivia, who runs a super quirky and alternative ice cream shop ("I Scream") that serves Fruit Brute ice cream. Max decides to call things off with Evelyn, but just before he gets a chance she is hit by a truck and dies in the street. Max is heartbroken long enough to start dating Olivia, which goes great until Evelyn climbs out of her grave and wants to resume the relationship as a zombie.
Aside from these threads, though, there's little to identify this as a Joe Dante film. There's little of his energy or visual wit. Far be it from me to review a movie's budget, but this was shot fast and cheap and feels like it; it's basically three (maybe four) characters standing around and talking to one another in shops and apartments and the digital photography leaves hardly an room for style. I can't really blame Dante for any of this. Such is the state of the industry right now. Even the guy who made Gremlins can't get the budget it would take to make even a small movie like this at the proper scale. Corners must be cut, meaning we end up having the grade the film on a curve -- the slack of "they did the best they could." Our hearts tell us that Joe Dante's best days are behind him, but our heads have to intervene and remind us that the game has changed, not him. At least, I don't think.
The screenplay has other major problems, like having Max keep Evelyn's return a secret for no other reason than so that he has to lie and deceive his new girlfriend for little to no comic gain. It's one of those setups that requires characters to behave like people in movies and not actual human beings. But it's when they do treat each other like real people that the movie works best, making me long for a more sensitive horror comedy in which characters are allowed to face the reality of their situation -- the movie this shows the potential for being at times. Unfortunately, it's at war with the half that's a dumb, incredibly sexist comedy that has to reduce it's characters to types. It's horror nerd wish fulfillment, in which we (as the horror nerd) get to date Ashley Greene who loves having sex but folds our posters so we leave her for Alexandra Daddario who, it should be said, is the horror fan's perfect girl and not just because she's played by Alexandra Daddario (which does not hurt). She loves the Ramones, she quotes Night of the Living Dead, she goes to see horror movies by herself, she owns her own successful business (which never seems to have any customers) and makes ice cream out of Monster cereal. Though Daddario plays her winningly, she's not a person. She's a construct. She's the Monster Pixie Dream Girl.
Gremlins to 1998's Small Soldiers -- we can sometimes forget that Dante started out as a Roger Corman protégé making stuff like Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha. He comes by this kind of thing honestly. However, the ways that Burying the Ex tries to be edgy don't feel like Joe Dante. It's too tone deaf and dirty for him, lacking the director's essential sweetness. Some of the dark comedy feels like it comes from his voice -- the increasing number of flies swarming around Evelyn are a particularly nice touch -- but they're competing with cheap gross out gags and forced raunchy dialogue. The film never feels like it really has a handle on itself.
So do I like the movie more or less because of Joe Dante? Had Burying the Ex been directed some generic for-hire or first-time filmmaker, I would be much more willing to dismiss and forget it. But it would also be missing all the Joe Dante touches that endear me to it at all -- the references, the love of genre that bleeds through even the rough spots, the cameos from the likes of Dick Miller (of course) and Archie Hahn (sadly no Belinda Balaski this time out). And, yet, because it is Joe Dante I feel like my disappointment is amplified. I take it much more personally when the movie falls short, either a sign that Dante has somehow "lost it" or that he is being let down by a system he helped make hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. I tried not to carry any baggage into the film, but to deny my history and feelings for the work of Joe Dante would be to watch movies the wrong way. We cannot view movies objectively; we can only watch them as ourselves. It's what makes our relationship to them so special -- we bring with us the sum total of all our life experiences into every film, and the way the art interacts with our tastes, our memories and our histories defines how we respond.
Try as I might to separate my feelings about the filmmaker from the film he made, I can't. Whether it makes me biased in favor of the film or unusually critical of it, my love of Joe Dante colors my view of even a lesser effort like Burying the Ex. And why shouldn't it? We don't experience art in a vacuum, and for some reason the idea of having preferences has become a dirty word in the way we talk about movies -- especially critics, who are expected to be empty vessels just waiting to be filled by every new film they experience. It doesn't work that way. We're fans, same as everyone else. The best we can do is let the reader know who we are and where we are coming from when discussing a movie. I wanted to like Burying the Ex more than I did because I'm such a fan of the director behind it. And while it might be my least favorite thing he's ever done, I won't ever give up on Joe Dante. Even his weakest movie has enough of him in it that I still find a lot to like. Maybe that's just wishful thinking talking. What can I say? I'm a fan.