Our Tribeca coverage begins with Glenn on two similarly titled indies
Alex is in crisis in both About Alex and actor Chris Messina's directorial debut Alex in Venice. Both films are indie dramas about the complexities of modern relationships, though one is decidedly much better than the other. While both Alexes are broad-strokes comparable to similar films that have come before, Jesse Zwick’s About Alex has trouble feeling like anything more than a cheap imitation. Populated by a cast of predominantly TV actors (Maggie Grace, Aubrey Plaza, Max Greenfield, and Jason Ritter as Alex) and featuring a lot of nonsensical moments and illogical characters traits that could easily be the result of the first time feature writer and director’s inexperience, About Alex just doesn’t congeal into anything substantial. It lacks the generational pull of its most direct cinematic cousins, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-nominated 1983 classic The Big Chill (or maybe the generation on display is just not as interesting). The ensemble chemistry that lifted Joe Swanberg’s recent Drinking Buddies out of the sea of low-budget, mumblecore imitators is also missing. [more...]
If About Alex’s problems were only in its form then it would be an inoffensive 90-minute crash course in the lives of these troubled twentysomethings. Unluckily, its biggest issues come from the lack of grace and perspective with which it handles the petty problems of its characters. This is a film in which the biggest problem faced by one character is whether she should quit her job as a lawyer and accept investment money from a wealthy former flame to open a restaurant in the Lower East Side. Shakespeare couldn't come up with such life or death decisions. It’s a film in which a successful author has now reduced himself to working as a well-paid journalist of trash news with so much spare time he can attempt to write a novel. What a drag! It’s a film in which a character goes to clean up the site of an attempted suicide while wearing a waistcoat and jeans. Come on!
Silly, pedantic issues mount up side by side (that risotto must be stone cold!) and it becomes much harder to shrug up as merely unsuccessful... especially with characters as unsympathetic these. When the August: Osage County style truth telling session finally occurs it comes off as little more than the whingeing tantrums of the preppy upper-middle class with no base in reality.
Alex in Venice is a much more pleasant situation. Chris Messina’s directorial debut establishes him as a filmmaker with considerable skill behind the camera; a visually pleasing and appropriately unfussy technique that thankfully doesn’t toot its horn with unnecessary bells and whistles. Rather Messina, who also has a small but pivotal role, steps aside and lets star Mary Elizabeth Winstead take control in the role of Alex, a newly-single mother and environmental lawyer who takes care of her aging father and a newly arrived sister.
Compared to About Alex, which was stuffed with characters attempting to interact like real people, Messina’s film is content to let its screenplay simply breathe and allow its actors to create recognizable human characters out of the potentially annoying indie quirks and clichés they are occasionally saddled with. Not all of the storylines deliver – Don Johnson’s momentary lapse into Alzheimers was a curious decision given its lack of emotional pay off; Alex’s son begins a transformation that never comes to fruition – they still feel like authentic diversions. Unlike About Alex, one can understand the actions (and reactions) of all the injured parties.
If the film isn’t as fresh as its sun-tinged cinematography then at least the actors give it all the energy that is needed to make a small, indie drama stand out at a festival. Winstead continues to affirm her status as one of Hollywood’s most underused assets. Films like Alex in Venice and Smashed may not bring in the pay checks like a Die Hard sequel, but it’s infinitely more rewarding for both the actor and the audience. Despite her beauty, Winstead has an ability to be identifiable and that’s something not all actors can claim. Katie Nehra (also a co-writer of the film) in the potentially ruinous stock role of the flaky, rebellious sister is also excellent.
If the film isn’t as fresh as its sun-tinged cinematography then at least the actors give it all the energy that is needed to make a small, indie drama stand out at a festival. Winstead continues to affirm her status as one of Hollywood’s most underused assets. Films like Alex in Venice and Smashed may not bring in the pay checks like a Die Hard sequel, but it’s infinitely more rewarding for both the actor and the audience. Despite her beauty, Winstead has an ability to be identifiable and that’s something not all actors can claim. Julianna Guill in the potentially ruinous stock role of the flaky, rebellious sister is also excellent.
Alex in Venice isn’t a grand statement announcing the arrival of a new actor-turned-director force, but it is a nicely observed boutique tale that suggests a filmmaker with a gift with his fellow actors and a natural ease behind the camera. At a festival surrounded by films like About Alex that are trying so desperately to stand out by being about anything and everything all at once, it’s a relief to see a film such as this.
About Alex: C-; Alex in Venice: B