by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & The Ex & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hich came first, the sociopath or the paraplegic? Not quite as ontologically puzzling as the whole chicken/egg thing, but it's enough of a head scratcher to have occupied screenwriting team David Guion and Michael Handelman for at least as long as it took to pen The Ex. A week, then, maybe two.

Chip Sanders (Jason Bateman, career resuscitated by Arrested Development) is the paraplegic/sociopath in question. Confined to a wheelchair since childhood, he's made a point of overcoming obstacles. Despite no movement below the waist, he managed to be a high school cheerleader, a martial artist and, somehow, to have sex with Tom Reilly's (Zach Braff) future wife, Sofia (Amanda Peet). Tom, being the daffy aloof slacker Guion and Handelman have made him, knows none of this going into his first day at his father-in-law's Ohio ad firm, where Chip is the creative star. He's flying blind.

So are we, thanks to the soulless script. Before moving to Ohio, Tom was a chef in Manhattan. Sofia was a lawyer. As Sofia prepares to become a "full-time mom" (as opposed to "housewife"), Tom gets in a food fight with his evil boss for no good reason. He's previously been a writer and a musician, with similar ends. Sofia says, at one point, that the thing she loves about Tom is his ability to "spot bullshit a mile away." Why then, hasn't he avoided these recurring conflicts rather than stepping in them? Guion and Handelman want us to think Tom's a principled genius, but he comes across like a bearing-less moron.

Braff, physically lumpy and emotionally wooden, is incapable of being either compelling or sympathetic. Bateman's dry wit -- here caustic where it's usually affably resigned -- only feels fresh because Arrested Development died young. His character is one not-very-interesting note, and the veteran of TV can't do a thing about it. Of the principals, only Amanda Peet is convincing, and only when director Jesse Peretz allows her big, sad eyes a chance to survey the memory of her life in Manhattan.

So, adrift with neither script nor actor to direct him, the moron lands in Ohio, near a condescending father-in-law and Sofia's old flame (who courts her openly). Chip begins, with no provocation, to undermine Tom at work and physically abuse him at the gym. At this point, the film gives up all pretense of being a character study and becomes a ridiculous thought experiment on political correctness. Custom dictates that Tom (and, by extension, we) pity Chip. Chip's a real jerk, though, which makes us hate him. How much of that anger and competitiveness, is due to his disability? Shouldn't we cut him some slack?

Do we hate Chip because he's a jerk or love him because he's a cripple? To Guion and Handelman, this is a serious moral quandary. More troubling to the audience is the conspicuous dearth of laughs and heart in this "comedy."

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