About Alex Comedy

A Film Review Among Friends: About Alex

August 8, 2014Ben MK

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Defrosting The Big Chill...

The Big Chill recently turned the big Three-O. Director Lawrence Kasdan's seminal 1983 film — about a group of seven college friends who reunite for a weekend, in the wake of their friend's suicide — was a cinematic touchstone for the baby boomer generation; so it's only fitting that, three decades later, the concept gets a makeover for the millennial generation. That's where writer/director Jesse Zwick's About Alex comes in, as an ensemble film that also centers on a group of college friends who come together for a weekend to help one of their own deal with his suicide — well, attempted suicide.


That friend (and the film's titular character) is played by Jason Ritter, whose character is (for reasons unknown) going through a tough time. In the film's cold open, we see him holed up all alone in his house in upstate New York, preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil. As he slips into the bathtub, wearing a suit and tie and clutching a razor and his smartphone, he tweets one last message to the world before getting to the business at hand.

But unlike The Big Chill, Alex's suicide doesn't go as planned. His friends are soon notified of his attempt to take his own life, and one by one they converge upon his house to lend their support. First to arrive are Ben (Nate Parker) and Siri (Maggie Grace), a couple on the cusp of a relationship-altering decision: he a once-promising writer who hasn't written anything substantial in a year and she (presumably) a grad student who's just been offered a fellowship in another state. Then there's Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) and Josh (Max Greenfield), former college flames with a bickering love-hate relationship. She's a mergers and acquisitions attorney whose real passion is cooking, and he's a grumpy academic who loathes everything to do with the modern world (especially social media). Finally, there's Isaac (Max Minghella), the only one of their small group to experience any financial success after graduation, and his younger, 22-year-old girlfriend, Kate (Jane Levy), who (of all things) works at a suicide prevention hotline and begins to regret her decision to tag along before she and Isaac have even boarded their flight to New York.

As one might expect, the weekend quickly turns into an opportunity for the formerly close-knit circle of friends to reconnect with one another, reminisce about their college days and, as some of them succumb to old habits, rekindle old romances. But most importantly, it's a chance for them to confront unresolved issues about themselves and about each other; for even though the film is titled About Alex, the story isn't solely about that one character, or any other one character in particular, at all.

What it is, however, is the sort of picture that lives and dies on the dynamic of its ensemble cast, and first-time writer/director Jesse Zwick (the son of acclaimed director Edward Zwick) has assembled an amazingly talented and charismatic bunch to work with here. Most of them have at least some experience working in the realm of television sitcoms and dramas: Ritter is a familiar face on Parenthood, Grace has appeared on Californication, Plaza is a regular on Parks and Recreation, Greenfield is well-known to New Girl fans, Minghella has guest-starred on The Mindy Project and Levy can be seen on Suburgatory. But as a testament to the versatility of their acting skills, none of their performances ever feels like a rehash of their small screen roles.

In fact, if anything, the cast helps the film avoid the sort of sitcom trappings and overwrought dramatic pitfalls that might otherwise befall a film where, as Minghella's character notes, "it's complicated" because, as Greenfield's character puts it, "everyone's getting together with everyone." About Alex doesn't veer too far into comedic territory, nor does it spend all of its time wallowing in the melancholic depths of self-pity. Instead, Zwick aims squarely down the middle with this level-headed dramedy, and the cast follows suit, with performances that hit just the right notes, bringing honesty, levity and wit to the moments in the story that demand it.

The Bottom Line The concept may not be wholly original, but rather than coming off as merely a hollowed-out, indie-inspired imitation of The Big Chill, About Alex pays suitable homage to that classic film, while carving out its own niche in the sub-genre of class reunion films. It doesn't resonate with the same sense of iconic importance as that 1983 classic, but thanks to its smartly-written — and occasionally self-aware — dialog and winsome cast, it's still a thoroughly engaging and wholly worthwhile film in its own right.  Ben Mk

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