“About Alex” begins with a suicide attempt. This opening scene isn’t gruesome or grisly, but eerie. Dressed for the part (black suit and tie), Alex (Jason Ritter) adjusts his tie knot, flips through old books for a folded magazine article, putting the lump into his breast pocket, and proceeds to draw a bath, filling the tub decidedly halfway. The camera maintains an emotional distance, framing objects and body parts but not zooming in too closely on his frame of mind.
[ Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. “About Alex” is now available to watch On Demand.]
The stage is set, Alex takes the plunge. He sends out one last tweet — “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find a grave man.” The original line is from “Romeo & Juliet,” delivered by Mercutio after Tybalt’s mortal blow. Whereas Mercutio reserves his final breaths to morbid punnery and “A plague o’ both your houses!,” Alex says nothing — no last phone call to his mother or haunting message to the one who got away — and resigns himself to the razor’s edge.
From there, we’re introduced to Alex’s close college friends as they hear the news via phone calls. The cast reads like a Who’s Who of the industry’s up-and-coming. Along with Ritter (“Parenthood”), there’s Maggie Grace (“Taken”) and Nate Parker (“Arbitrage”) as the group’s golden couple, Max Greenfield (“New Girl”) as the bitter intellectual, Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) playing against type as an insecure optimist, and Max Minghella (“The Mindy Project”) as the token Midwesterner who brings along his new young girlfriend played by Jane Levy (“Suburgatory”).
The five friends (and +1) plane, train, and automobile to Alex’s side, or more specifically to his place in upstate New York. As the ol’ gang unites under one roof, past and present issues bubble to the surface; old rivalries, a love trapezoid, post-college disillusionment, etc. Coming together, they cast a wide net for the audience to project on. As promising as all of the above might read, the film falls flat, mistaking relatability for empathy to move forward a drama-flimsy, snark-ridden plot.
They clean, they cook, they chop wood, they debate whether to listen to Bruce Springsteen. It’s like a camp getaway for adults, but without the fun. The script’s dialogue touches on the post-recession job market, the rise of social media, and the converse decline of human contact, but not to a satisfying degree. Through ill-pacing, many of the jokes turn from decent one-liners into cheap gags, e.g. naming a character Siri and then having another make an iPhone joke that you could see a mile coming. Self-aware nods to the similarly-premised “The Big Chill” and its ilk are too throwaway to be witty (there’s a bit about Jeff Goldblum) or too vague to be incisive (a character pauses to comment on how the weekend feels like a movie from the ‘80s).
While making sure to devote a few lines to mocking Instagram and “The Real Housewives,” the film winds up glossing over its own privilege. One character’s been published in The New Yorker, another manages a hedge fund, Alex lives in a willed-to-him country house. Whereas in other films you can waive elitism, spoken or unspoken, for the sake of art or entertainment, it’s hard when a film flickers lacks the dramatic weight necessary to swallow its twee stereotype of 21st century adulthood (e.g. there’s a bathroom door embossed with “Lavatory,” they have a reefer-induced, vinyl-tuned dance party, the set design is a hodgepodge of Anthropologie and Restoration Hardware).
On a less superficial level, the characters have the emotional intelligence of middle schoolers and lack serious ramifications. They yell, they cry, they cheat on significant others, but that’s all swept under the rug by the end credits. Upon leaving the house, each gets allotted a new lease on life and newly raised issues are forgotten for the glorified bigger picture. In real life, you can’t go back and press restart. Yet these characters, who show so little to deserve it, are able to and come out glowing in friend-induced epiphany.
The film relies on an obtuse use of anxiety, depression and suicide, which are treated as little more than plot devices or character quirks. Characters throw around Xanax and Klonopin nonchalantly, offering them to anxious others like a cup of tea. Alex’s still uncleaned bath (blood, razor and all) turns from a stark realization to running gag as each of the friends avoid the downstairs bathroom. By the time the friends confront Alex head-on about the suicide attempt over a drinking game, Alex reveals that it was more a cry for attention than an actual death wish, which is interpreted as a betrayal of the friends’ sympathy.
Rather than honing one central theme (other than an umbrella nostalgia for college friendships) or even settling on a tone (flinging one-liners as easily as long-time-coming revelations), writer-director Jesse Zwick tries to win over the entire audience, playing on their emotional strings to a rose-tinted past or waning relationships or even battles with depression. Focusing on cultural references and social cues, “About Alex” fails to give us a big picture compelling enough to overlook its flaws.
Criticwire Grade: C-
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