Mary Elizabeth Winstead has the “one to watch” thing down pat. The former teen actress has now blossomed into one of independent film’s most reliable and relatable leading ladies and her steady rise up the cinematic ranks – from the drunken darkness of Smashed to the dark humor of Faults, with a little The Thing and A Good Day to Die Hard thrown in for a touch of blockbuster fun– has long been someone worth watching, and now. For his directorial debut, actor Chris Messina has quite wisely built a story around Winstead’s charms, setting her up as the eponymous Alex for his Alex of Venice, an amiable outing that serves as yet another reminder that Winstead is more than enough of a draw on her own.
The duo star in the domestic drama as a long-time couple fractured and felled by apparently normal grievances. Alex (Winstead) is a hardcore workaholic, and her career as an environmentally minded attorney both fills the time and doesn’t quite pay the bills. George (Messina) is stuck with home-bound duties, from getting their son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) off to school, maintaining the house, and even caring for Alex’s dad (Don Johnson, potentially playing himself). Alex may be exacting when it comes to her job, but George appears to be the truly pragmatic one – or, at least, that seems to be the role he’s been shoved into by Alex and the demands of their home life – and when he starts exploding around Alex, their son, and his father-in-law, there’s little question that something is going to fall apart soon.
“I want to do things, too,” George complains early in the film’s first act, and as immature as that might sound, he’s got a point. He wants to do things, too, but that can’t happen while he’s playing “house husband” to Alex and their family. Despite Messina’s ostensibly co-starring role in the film, the first-time director removes himself from the action in front of the camera pretty quickly, as George heads out for a little “me time,” leaving Alex to pick up a lot of pieces.
The question of Alex of Venice isn’t “can Alex do it all?,” but rather “can Alex do it all with even a modicum of success?” Hey, turns out, she’s in for a struggle.
Alex doesn’t just have to reinvent the way her house runs – and the sudden appearance of her sister Lily (Katie Nehra, who also co-wrote the film) doesn’t really make things easier or better – she’s also got a big case to handle, her father’s questionable health to contend with (also an actor, Johnson’s character starts looking a little green around the gills when he takes on a demanding role in a local production of The Cherry Orchard), and a son to raise.
Oh, and maybe she’d like to meet a new dude, too.
Her relationship with George comprises the entirety of Alex’s romantic experience – the two paired up when she was still just a teenager, and she’s never been with another man – so it stands to reason that her explorations would involve getting down with some other dudes. Yet Alex, who is so determined to be a good mother and a good lawyer, makes some dunderheaded choices when it comes to her love life, the sort that could have big implications both at work and at home. Messina has some honest stuff on his hands here – Alex doesn’t just crumble in the face of a bad situation, and she (and the film) approach some very real issues with a brightness and sweetness that isn’t often found in similar outings – but missteps like Alex’s choice of potential paramour keep it from feeling totally grounded.
Elsewhere, the film’s script is laden with subplots – grandpa’s play, Lily and Dakota’s playful bond – that detract from Alex’s journey because they are depicted away from her own essential point of view. The film’s script eventually ties everything together, and the effect is a mostly nice reminder of all the moving parts in Alex’s life, but the previous disconnect between the plots is jarring and unsatisfying.
Those subplots also irritate because they keep us away from Winstead, who is the main and best draw of Alex of Venice. Winstead can telegraph more with a head tilt or a flicker of her eyes than most of her generation can do with a wild hand toss and a mess of expositional dialogue. She’s consistently and completely engaging as Alex, and the film suffers when we’re not around her and stuck elsewhere. Messina surely knows what he has on his hands here – after all, the best choice he possibly could have made for his first feature was to cast such a capable leading lady – but both he and the film should have held more fast to its own shooting star.
The Upside: Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is the highlight of the film, but both Don Johnson and Katie Nehra also turn in lovely work; the film’s tone is consistent and bright; addresses big issues with an honest spirit.
The Downside: The film’s plotline isn’t particularly original, the inciting incident comes with little context, and the shifting focus doesn’t always work.
On the Side: Will McCormack, who wrote Celeste and Jesse Forever alongside best pal Rashida Jones, appears in a bit of a cameo role as the director of the play.