Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Jesse Zwick
Screenplay: Jesse Zwick
Runtime: 96 minutes
Cast: Nate Parker, Jason Ritter, Maggie Grace, Aubrey Plaza.
Trailer: "You know what this is like? One of those eighties movies!" (warning: but worse!)
Plot: After the attempted suicide of Alex, his close friends come together in the countryside to support him, catch up, and take stock of their lives so far. But old issues take little time to bubble to the surface; lawyer Sarah deals with old feelings for finance executive Isaac, Ben and Siri must redefine the terms of their relationship, asshole Josh alienates every fucking person onscreen and watching, and Alex must come to terms with the issues that made him want to take his own life in the first place.
Review: Some films are a loving homage to a classic; About Alex is an annoying act of mass appropriation. Obviously based on The Big Chill (1983), but sold as that film for a new generation (X or Y; it never makes clear, and constantly confuses the clichés attached to both), the film bills itself as an exploration of the issues of adulthood and regret confronting a new generation. That it fails in this exploration is unsurprising – it is hard to contemplate regret and compromise for a cast of characters who have barely left college – but what was the most striking element of the film, at least for me, was the dark, hateful river of venom one particular character provoked in me while I watched the film, to the point of wanting to punch the actual actor in the face, and see his character fictionally hanged. Congratulations Josh, you are officially the worst fucking character ever to grace the silver screen – I hope that pretentious beard drains all of the nutrients out of your head and you die, reduced to a glossy Pantene bush. Jesus fuck, I hated that guy. Hated in the way you might devote the rest of your life to a Count of Monte Cristo style revenge plan, and after a decade of the pieces slowly falling into place see him sacrificed on the altar of the Hindu goddess Kali within a Thuggee temple. After watching About Alex, that is the only appropriate send-off I could conceive of for that pile of human worstness.
Josh aside, the narrative of the film plays out competently and unoriginally – one character remarking that ‘this is like one of those ’80s movies,’ perhaps a winking reference to the cavernous debt the film owes to The Big Chill, but also telegraphing that this will play out like every ‘weekend in the country’ narrative since the actual time period of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Gathered together by the attempted suicide of their friend Alex – who has issues that are never fully interrogated by the film, beyond character Ben not answering his increasingly erratic phone calls – we trudge through the predictable problems of the archetypes assembled. Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) is a workaholic lawyer paying off law school debts, and still in love with Isaac (a seven-year-old Max Minghella) but sleeping with Josh, indicating the depths of her self loathing. That she wants to leave her job is conveyed early; however because she does most of the cooking throughout the duration of the holiday, the script randomly settles on her wanting to open a restaurant. Isaac is happy, but with a supposedly much younger girlfriend (Jane Levy) the group meets for the first time; confusingly, she seems only a year or two younger, a chasm when you’re in high school but one would think irrelevant in the adult world. Ben (Nate Parker) is the next James Joyce, based on one short story published in the New Yorker plus some generic Wonder Years narration, and the token non-white member of the group – but he hasn’t been able to write a thing for a year. His partner Siri (Maggie Grace) thinks she might be pregnant, ruining plans for some sort of academic fellowship. And then there’s Josh (Max Greenfield); everything you’ve hated about hipster, faux-intellectual, PhD preachy dickheads performing his role as the misanthrope and self-appointed truth teller of the group. Neither writer-director Jesse Zwick nor Max Greenfield ever find that fine balance of obnoxious but right with this character; he’s never right and always fucking awful. Here’s a sampling:
"The only thing I hate more than the present is nostalgia for the past... enough with the fucking pictures... What are you going to do with this pictures? Are you going to post them on facebook? You're clinically obsessed. So wait, your newsfeed tells you that Isaac got a new pair of Italian loafers, while Ben wrote a funny headline for the Post, and that makes you feel like you still know somebody? Well you know what, I'm sorry, but maybe I'd rather be in the fucking dark as to what people are up to than mistake some false level of intimacy for friendship." Really, he's the worst.
Other faux-profound elements are thrown in – Isaac’s girlfriend works for as a counsellor for a suicide hotline, and has to give advice while high; a dog is found and named Jeff Goldbloom (!); a car accident; a few stray kisses. The film does effectively convey that morning after feeling, and the slow confrontation with the night before which mirrors the reckoning the characters must have with their new lives, but nothing sticks beyond some pop nostalgia and substance aided conflict/reconciliation. If Zwick’s intention is to artfully dissect the malaise of a suddenly mature generation, rather than challenge it, then he meets the bare minimum here. But so do so many other films; to the point where all of the elements of the film are a tired commonplace. Are we supposed to take comfort that their situation is like ours or that they confront the same problems? From that perspective, the film seems entitled and petulant, with a Christmas stocking full of easy solutions. Is it supposed to be a unique take on a generation coming to fruition? In that case, it looks like those amusing New York Times articles from the 1870s, 1960s, 1990s, 2010s, put side by side, complaining about kids these days and how they should get off our lawns. Is it meant to be a genuine contemplation of the issues couples face? In that case, it doesn’t spend enough time with any of the potential or actual couples within the film to gain any insight there.
The Big Chill was meant to close with a poignant scene showing the friends (and their now dead colleague, played by a then unknown Kevin Costner) meeting and bonding for the first time. Director Lawrence Kasdan judiciously nixed that idea as too on the nose. Not so Zwick, who inserts that meeting here with late nineties period touches (i.e. backwards baseball caps and denim) and which plays like that inevitable, embarrassing episode sitcoms like Friends or Happy Endings always feel obligated to insert. Unnecessary, unoriginal, and the tag line of this limp effort.
Rating: Two Xanex.