In the tranquil suburbs of Venice, Alex, an environmental rights attorney, is about to receive a rude awakening. A workaholic, she brings home the bacon, while George, her stay-at-home husband, runs the household and takes care of both their son Dakota and Alex’s forgetful, pot-smoking father. But the rug gets pulled out from under Alex when her husband unexpectedly decides to pack it all in and announces that he’s leaving the family, at least for now, to work on his waning art career and find some space.
Thrown for a loop, Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) barely has time to register her own pain, surprise, and heartache because she’s immediately overburdened with the responsibilities of two full-time jobs. It soon becomes abundantly clear how inept she is at home, and how important George (Chris Messina) was. Cooking, cleaning, getting Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) to school on time, and managing her father’s (Don Johnson) medication become tasks she can barely handle. With a big lawsuit she is leading in the works, the emotionally adrift Alex is deeply overwhelmed. What eventually follows is a personal mini-voyage of self-discovery, resolve, and resignation.
Well-intentioned and intimate, “Alex Of Venice” has its heart in the right place. Its pains and struggles might be small stakes and personal, but they’re very genuine, relatable, and universal. There’s a lot to admire, which is why the movie’s uneven grasp of narrative fundamentals is so frustrating. Led by a terrifically vulnerable performance by an unadorned Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the cast, which includes Derek Luke, Katie Nehra, and Reg E. Cathey (Freddy From “House Of Cards”) is uniformly quite good. Don Johnson is particularly great, playing all restrained and in the pocket as Alex’s father who might be suffering from something more than just acute absent-mindedness (this is his second great performance of 2014 after playing a impulsive lawman in “Cold In July,” which screened earlier this year at Sundance).
The directorial debut of Chris Messina (“The Mindy Project”), the actor-turned-filmmaker puts together a mostly composed indie drama, and it certainly isn’t amateurish in any way. But there are flaws in the design. There’s a recent tendency in indie cinema to downplay or deemphasize big game-changing moments in favor of something more authentic and realistic. This is well-meaning; not all moments of life are melodramatically writ large. However, this intention works against “Alex of Venice,” especially in the most critical instances.
Written by Jessica Goldberg, Justin Shilton, and Katie Nehra (who also plays Alex’s irresponsible younger sister in the film), “Alex Of Venice” takes baffling shortcuts that don’t feel organic. When George announces that he’s going to leave, it’s as abrupt as a needle scratch. Perhaps the idea is to drop you into Alex’s POV of confusion, but the moment is simply jarring because five minutes before George was grilling burgers, hanging with the family, and everything was hunky dory. Ostensibly a movie about change and dealing with the difficulties of drastic curveballs that life throws us, the audience is constantly told that Alex and George “changed” over the years, that they drifted in two different directions. And yet crucially, the audience never feels or sees this change at all. They’re somehow just meant to understand it because various characters have said so.
Likewise, cheating on any emotional journey will always disorient the viewer. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Alex goes from realizing she’s only slept with one guy ever (her husband) to planning to sleep with someone within the awkward span of five minutes, which isn’t in keeping with her character (she resists for about a blip). A lack of orientation flaws the film too. We’re not sure if her husband has been AWOL for a few days or weeks, so when she decides to unadvisedly sleep with the rival party in her lawsuit (a businessman played by the undervalued, always good Derek Luke) within the span of another five minutes, the moment feels rushed and the consequent affair, unnatural.
Apart from the strong performances, which do keep the movie afloat despite from the narrative breaks in your emotional suspension of disbelief, other cinematic elements help support the movie. The film is well shot with naturalistic lighting, and composer David Wingo’s wistful score is also excellent and effective. However, the melancholy, plaintive score arguably does too much of the emotional heavy lifting and that’s because, again, these moments don’t always add up genuinely. “Alex Of Venice” isn’t a strong sum of its good individual parts, and many moments feel unearned. We believe and empathize with Mary Elizabeth Winstead when she’s upset, as she’s a good actress that can sell a scene, but we don’t always believe the situation or the sequence that got her from emotional point A to B. This obviously hurts the movie and the viewer’s engagement in it, and that’s not all.
Don Johnson’s subplot is quite moving and effective — he begins to discover he may have issues like Alzheimer’s disease while starring in a version of Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” But the tangential use of Chekov eventually becomes contrived and forced: the characters’ tearful goodbyes to their old life while Alex has just come to terms with the end of her own is too on-the-nose. As a portrait of identity and reevaluation “Alex Of Venice” is commendable, but it doesn’t exactly take us to places we haven’t seen before (Alex dancing carefree in slow-motion as brief moment of escape from her woes is simultaneously moving and familiar).
At its best, “Alex Of Venice” is soulful, thanks to its actors and music. There’s a dolorous pang here that’s real and something many will connect with. However, the drama is, exasperatingly, often a picture with good characters and expressive actors stuck in an admirably humanistic narrative that frequently misses the mark. Truthfully, we need relatable human dramas about everyday life. We need movies that reflect back the beauty in little things that make our personal struggles feel worthwhile. But first and foremost, we have to believe in them beyond the screenwriter’s construct. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.