Jami Saunders/Screen Media Films
If About Alex seems a little too much like an unofficial remake of The Big Chill, that’s the point. The drama centers around a group of estranged friends from college who are reunited at a country house when one of their schoolmates attempts suicide. It even opens with a scene involving a bath, followed by a montage introducing all the characters in their present grown-up worlds. And, of course, the guy who slits his wrists here is also named Alex. The main difference, though, is that he doesn’t die. The others aren’t in town for his funeral, therefore, but rather just to be with him for his recovery. Where the movie is similar to its 1983 inspiration and where it’s different is significant to what it says about today’s generation of post-grad people on the cusp of being thirty-something.
The ensemble gathered for this Alex (Jason Ritter) includes types who parallel the characters of 31 years ago, only in a kind of mashed up manner. Nate Parker plays a writer unhappily working as a journalist for an outlet of ill repute. But he’s hardly the Jeff Goldblum of the bunch. Aubrey Plaza works for a law firm, though not too comparable to Mary Kay Place’s role in The Big Chill. And she might want to open up a restaurant, which is like Goldblum’s character’s nightclub dreams. Max Minghella is sort of the rich guy equivalent to Tom Berenger, but he works at a hedge fund instead of in Hollywood. And he’s got a young girlfriend, played by Jane Levy, who fills the Meg Tilly slot except she’s even more of an outsider because she has no direct association with Alex and doesn’t function as our and the characters’ firsthand understanding of him leading up to his incident.
Without familiarity with The Big Chill, you won’t be totally lost watching About Alex, and realizing where the two films’ circles of films overlap isn’t necessary to get these new people and their relationships with one another. But it’s better if you do. Writer-director Jesse Zwick clearly expects us to have the reference point to not just the one earlier drama but also to other 1980s movies about conversations among a group of people, such as St. Elmos Fire and The Breakfast Club, the latter mimicked in the form of an old short story by Parker’s character read in voiceover. During a dialogue-driven dinner scene, one character actually relates the moment to those very movies, without naming titles. Another character separately refers to their generation as a hopelessly nostalgic one that has to constantly reference preexisting things, usually pieces of pop culture, that present moments are like.
This is a highly reflexive drama but not in a way that takes us out of the story. The characters are figures in a study of the modern young adult and the disconnect of friends in spite of how much more technically linked up we are now than ever. But they still feel more like people than representational devices. Except for maybe Maggie Grace, who is burdened by the fact that her character’s name, Siri, would be too much on the nose even someone didn’t also make a joke about Apple’s personal assistant application to her. In a way, the humanity of the film is a problem for what it’s going for, especially considering these people aren’t very interesting outside of the fact that they’re part of a dramatic conceit. About Alex isn’t so much about Alex as it is, like the dissertation of a hothead academic played by Max Greenfield, about general human existence in the modern, digitally informed world.
Unfortunately Zwick doesn’t push the point far enough. It says but doesn’t fully show itself to be a defining portrait of its generation the way its influences are. The Big Chill had it easier, though, with such a simply established contrast between who the young Americans of the ’60s were and what they grew up to be by the ’80s, the transition from hippie to yuppie. We could know who the characters were without flashbacks or too much expositional background. About Alex, by some fault of the times, doesn’t have such a distinctly recognizable cultural change over the past few years. Part of the issue is that these new characters are meant to be in their late 20s and therefore a bit younger, probably an intention illustrating that this generation is less patient and also immediately reflective. But it’s also a generation that takes longer to grow up. These people are not situated enough into adulthood, not distanced enough from their college years for any meaningful effect, and it definitely makes their clash with Levy’s 22-year-old hardly relevant.
Where About Alex really falters is in the individual relationship subplots, just as its predecessors had the same problems. There’s nothing as weird as The Big Chill‘s sperm donor storyline or as unbelievable as the identity compromising couplings of The Breakfast Club, but maybe it could have used such memorable turns of plot even if ones that were absurd or disappointing. The characters in About Alex never hook us in, so we don’t care who they hook up with during their weekend together. Most of the romantic drama in movies like this is a terribly lazy distraction for the sake of trying to have a narrative. The discussions and the conflicts that come out of them is plenty, and if that’s not cinematic enough then there’s still room for a dance sequence or a montage of individual character moments between the conversational pieces.
About Alex does actually have a little dance scene, but the movie doesn’t lean on its soundtrack, maybe because we’re not ready to long for the music of the oughts just yet, and brief bits of barely familiar songs by contemporary indie rock groups that sound retro like Generationals and The Frowning Clouds aren’t going to carry the nostalgia needed for a generation to come running and own this movie the way the baby boomers did with The Big Chill and the way Generation X did with The Breakfast Club. About Alex is doomed to go unnoticed by a generation that can’t be bothered with movies so representationally about itself, because this is a generation that’s already too self-aware in a literal manner.
The Upside: Even though unofficial, this is what remakes are good for, reworking concepts to reflect modern contexts; the general points made about today’s generation and how that relates to the very existence of this movie are spot on yet not harsh enough; Greenfield is a captivating force of contemporary cynicism.
The Downside: Romantic entanglements and drama have little relevance to the overall point of the movie; there is nothing very memorable about any of the characters or their situations.
On the Side: Zwick’s father is filmmaker Edward Zwick (Glory; Blood Diamond), who in addition to producing this movie also co-created the TV series thirtysomething, which was heavily inspired by The Big Chill.