“You know what this is like? This is like one of those eighties movies.”
Jesse Zwick’s About Alex makes no bones about its apparent pedigree – the first-time filmmaker clearly pulled from a host of eighties features, especially the similarly themed The Big Chill for his debut, but he’s added a nice little twist to his work: no one is actually dead here. Instead, the group of college friends that make up the cast of About Alex are brought back together because someone is almost dead. (This actually makes quite a difference.) Reunited due to the attempted suicide of their pal Alex (Jason Ritter), the erstwhile group assemble at his house in upstate New York to welcome home a recently discharged Alex, find out what went wrong, and learn some stuff about themselves (and each other!) as the film unfolds over an appropriate ninety-six minute runtime.
But although the premise of the film is clearly a little contrived, but Zwick clearly knows that – amusingly enough, the dead protagonist in The Big Chill, the friend who really did succeed at his suicide, was also named Alex, and he also slit his wrists in a tub – but About Alex is so charming on its own merits that Zwick’s decision to riff on earlier features emerges as a wily and wise one.
Alex’s pals, once tight in their younger years, have since spread out across the country to pursue, well, not exactly their dreams (because none of them seem particularly happy), but something closer to the expectations of adulthood. There’s Siri (Maggie Grace) and Ben (Nate Parker), together since college and dealing with Siri’s potential professional success and Ben’s lack of it, up from Brooklyn. There’s Sarah (Aubrey Plaza, less sardonic than we’re used to, and better for it), a lawyer who only finds happiness in her cooking; Josh (Max Greenfield, more sardonic than we’re used to, and also better for it), a struggling PhD candidate who hates the modern world and the past in equal measure, and Isaac (Max Minghella, underused in the feature), who at least seems to be approaching maturity with some grace.
Somewhat inappropriately, Isaac totes along a date, his newish younger girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy), whose initial appearance is jarring to all of us (both the characters on screen and the audience watching them), before she quite successfully turns into a very necessary piece of the puzzle: the audience surrogate. No matter how close we might feel to the About Alex crew while watching their dramas play out on the big screen, we are not a part of them – and neither is Kate. (It also doesn’t hurt that Kate just might be most well-adjusted out of all of them, a fact that becomes only more clear as the film winds on.)
Alex’s attempt is danced around for the majority of the film, though the entire group struggles to reconcile their estrangements, with some trying to justify their separation, while others pick at it until it bleeds. About Alex handily approaches the question of social media as it applies to our friendships – namely, are you really connecting when you connect with someone online? – in a believable and unforced way. Twentysomething Zwick is quite firmly a part of the era of social media supremacy, and the film’s various mentions of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter never feel shoehorned in, they feel natural and appropriate. Conversely, the group’s disconnection between each other reads as relatable, not something injected into the film to give it a sense of being hip or cool. (Alex essentially pens his suicide note on Twitter, so no, social media isn’t a “hip” or “cool” thing in About Alex, though it is indicative of how the group connects.)
Zwick has assembled a hell of a cast for his first film – Plaza, Greenfield, and Ritter all stand out in different ways – and the group exhibits a natural chemistry and flow with each other. About Alex is tasked with juggling multiple storylines, relationships, and complications, often all at the same time, and Zwick and his cast are more than up for the job. The film is just charming and honest and sweet, and it’s a pleasure hanging out with this group – even when things get tough, even when we know they’re not actually our friends.
The film drives amiably on until its predictably – but wholly necessary – drama-filled third act, as a series of upheavals and revelations mix things up to a mostly believable and never over-the-top climax. About Alex does, however, make a few missteps in its final act, mainly centered around the tired trope that holds that all of these people secretly want to sleep with each other, or at least turn to each other for physical and sexual comfort, no matter how wholly inappropriate it may be. There’s no question that Zwick’s film needed one last big dramatic push to get it to its finale, but it would have been far more exciting and compelling if he didn’t do it by way of such a bland twist. Despite those final disappointments, it’s still a satisfying and sweet debut film that will likely only get better with age (just like those eighties films).
The Upside: Solid performances, particularly from Jason Ritter, Aubrey Plaza, and Max Greenfied; a fresh take on a seemingly played out plotline; charmingly self-aware; injects modern issues of connection and connectivity without feeling forced; satisfying without being sentimental.
The Downside: The film’s third act is too predictable, Max Minghella is given little to do, the dramatic meat of the film is meted out in unequal portions (Nate Parker is really shouldering the tough stuff here), some lines feel as if they could be plucked from any number of other films.
On the Side: The film is Zwick’s feature debut (and, yes, his father is who you think he is), and the only other credit he has on IMDb is a very fun one: he penned an episode of Parenthood back in 2012.