Medium Chill: "About Alex" a poignant, well-cast gathering
About Alex (2014)
96 min., rated R.
"'The Big Chill' for millennials" was already taken, but for a quick logline, that's what "About Alex" generally is going for in a nutshell. And that it could be a grandchild to that 1983 homecoming classic is neither here nor there because, whether or not it will grow with age, "About Alex" is still a satisfyingly smart and low-key slice-of-life of the moment. Son of filmmaker Edward Zwick ("Legend of the Fall," "Blood Diamond," "Love & Other Drugs"), writer-director Jesse Zwick got his hands on an appealing ensemble and gathered them for his feature debut, a reunion of sorts that has a semi-mournful quality but also a comfort level from catching up and just being with dear old friends. Even if we have been on this trip before, we come to like and care about the passengers, and poignancy is not lost.
When failed actor Alex (Jason Ritter) gets close to ending it all in the bathtub of his house in the Catskills, his college friends come to his aid to reunite and be under the same roof again. There's anxious attorney Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), who tries a little too hard to keep a close eye on Alex, and caustic writer Josh (Max Greenfield), who shares a sex-hate relationship with Sarah. Alex's best friend, Brooklyn magazine writer Ben (Nate Parker), feels at fault for Alex's suicide attempt from ignoring Alex's calls in the days beforehand, but he's been under a lot of pressure. Published in The New Yorker, Ben has put his book on the backburner for a year, while girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace) has to decide if she should take a dream offer in L.A. or sacrifice her work for their relationship. Isaac (Max Minghella), a San Francisco yuppie, is the last to arrive and he brings a younger date, 22-year-old crisis-hotline worker Kate (Jane Levy). Even if it's just for a weekend intervention, the six old pals get to be together, and they will drink and get high and eventually get to the deep-seated problem of why Alex tried taking his own life.
As every character's life is currently in a state of flux, the romantically doomed, "what-the-hell-do-we-do-now?" post-college tone is palpable. Delicately moving and nicely acted, "About Alex" exemplifies the wisdom and honesty of an old soul, as Jesse Zwick's screenplay ensures that none of the characters' mini-dramas can be fixed overnight. As it goes in most films of this ilk—one where friends are reunited by a life-altering event—little secrets get aired out over this one weekend, like a character still pining for another. Though it seems like the viewer would need a flow chart to remember every relationship, the film does an easy job of making it clear. Sarah used to date Isaac, who would like to help her pay for her own restaurant, but resists with Kate around and because she seems unable to suppress her carnal desire for Josh when they're together. Siri also used to be the tug-of-war object between two of the guys, but this is less of a soap opera than it's sounding. Everyone is also sweet on Alex, watching him at every moment, and then one is eventually hard on him for his reasons in wanting to end his life.
Chemistry is certainly hard to measure, but the likable cast of youngish actors have it in spades, and they're all good company. Aubrey Plaza and Max Greenfield bring just enough prickly levity to a situation where Sarah and Josh both don't know what to always say in uncomfortable situations. These two actors have locked down a shtick, with Plaza's deadpan persona and Greenfield's narcissistic doofus Schmidt on TV's "New Girl," and both do some impressive stretching here. Maggie Grace is the calming force as Siri, while Nate Parker might give his most mature performance as the weary Nate whose pain and guilt make him even more sympathetic. As Alex, Jason Ritter is like a sad puppy you want to take in, but his character is more complex than that of a prop. Suicide is a selfish act, and one gets the feeling that Alex's attempted suicide is more of a cry for help from those closest to him more than anything. Lastly but not least, Jane Levy projects a sweetness and relatability as someone who would feel like the odd one out. Then her Kate loosens up once she gets high for the first time. Not every character is on equal footing, but most of them are given more than enough breathing room to not be bound by plot.
"It's like we're gripped by this never-ending nostalgia for our parents' music. It's oppressive," Isaac says right before putting on a record and everyone starts dancing before dinner. It might as well be The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg." A stray dog gets named "Jeff Goldblum," who, of course, co-starred in "The Big Chill" and Beth compares their time to "one of those '80s movies" with "a big group of people." Oh, okay, even the character who successfully committed suicide in that Baby Boomer classic was named Alex. These similarities, or rather moments of homage being paid, add to the appeal of "About Alex," which is modern but somehow timeless in its organic conversations about social media and today's generation. With the whole of the picture hitting home emotionally, familiar ground is a trade-off one can easily live with. Considering the subject matter, it would seem inappropriate to say, but when "About Alex" isn't getting character-oriented laughs, it cuts just deep enough.