With a cast that includes Max Greenfield, Jane Levy, Aubrey Plaza, and Jason Ritter, About Alex feels a little like it’s bringing to life an epic crossover fan fiction involving everyone’s favorite television shows. And though the actors that make up the ensemble aren’t playing to their comedy types, they do carry over all the accrued good will needed to make About Alex, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, a thoroughly enjoyable if familiar reunion dramedy.
Directed by first-time filmmaker (and Parenthood writer) Jesse Zwick, About Alex is a self-conscious update of The Big Chill (“This is like one of those ’80s movies!” exclaims one character) that feels as comfortable to sink into as an overstuffed sofa. The movie’s seven Yale grads gather in the wake of a tragedy involving one of their own, the titular Alex (Ritter), who, unlike his namesake in the 1983 movie, has survived his suicide attempt. Soon thereafter, he finds his old college friends descending on his rambling house in upstate New York to spend time with him over the long weekend, and to catch up after drifting apart.
There’s Ben (Nate Parker), the aspiring writer to whom Alex is closest, his girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace), anxious lawyer Sarah (Plaza), and caustic doctoral candidate Josh (Greenfield), who gets most of the best lines in the film as the only one in the group willing to talk about what happened while everyone else tries to tiptoe around it. (“If you wanted to see all of us, you could have just shot us an email!” he jokingly snaps at Alex when he arrives fresh from the hospital.) Max Minghella plays Isaac, an investment banker living in San Francisco and dating the younger Kate (Jane Levy), who comes with him only to realize she’s stepping into the middle of years of shared history.
Crowding into the house for a few days of walking in the woods, drinking, getting stoned, and hanging out (while ignoring the traces of blood left from Alex’s attempted wrist-slitting in the downstairs bathroom), past romances and resentments naturally emerge. About Alex does a nice job of letting different combinations of its characters come together to surface long-held crushes, friendship imbalances, and fuck-buddy habits, tracing the way who these people were as college students has carried over into adulthood. Greenfield and Plaza are a highlight as Josh and Sarah evoke touches of his Schmidt on New Girl and her April Ludgate on Parks and Rec while coming across as brittle and more worn down by the directions their lives have taken. They bicker and sleep together and share a past that’s scarred Sarah in ways she’s only just now starting to be able to talk about.
There’s just enough messiness to About Alex that it doesn’t feel like it’s about the weekend that solved all of its characters’ problems — some, like Alex, have obviously reached a turning point, but others get smaller epiphanies or moments of closure, as they leave looking like they’ll continue on the trajectory they’re already on. A few of the relationships remain tantalizingly elusive, like what exactly is going on between Alex and Ben, with Alex’s dependence on his friend edging from neediness into an almost romantic yearning. Ben, who’s in some ways meant to be the center of the group, remains the least fleshed out character, someone whose early promise hasn’t led to the success everyone’s been expecting from him.
About Alex gets clunkier when it strives to be not just about this group of friends but about their entire generation, with Josh, who’s writing his dissertation on how the digital age is shaping biography, holding forth on Facebook and Instagram and how they create false intimacy. His lines on the topic feel like sentences these characters would’ve underlined and marked as important when they were undergrads, and not so much like things they’d actually say. Social media does create a passive, curated view of the lives of others, but About Alex is about something less timely than that. People get older, they change and they drift apart, and it’s not always possible to revisit the closeness they once had. That’s a bittersweet realization, and, at its best moments, the film captures it while suggesting you have to take pleasure in the time you have together.
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