There will always be movies depicting how two people get together, but a pair of films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival focus on what happens when they part. The directorial debuts Alex of Venice, from Mindy Project star Chris Messina, and Goodbye to All That, from Junebug screenwriter Angus MacLachlan, aren't just films about divorce, they're about how the end of a marriage can come as a total shock to one spouse, who thought everything was going fine.
Neither movie actually shows how the cracks in the relationship have formed over years, instead depicting what it's like when someone gets dumped out of domestic stasis and has to reevaluate his or her own life and what it means to start over. But Alex of Venice is from the perspective of the wife, whereas Goodbye to All That is from that of the husband, and the differences between them are as interesting as why one works so much better than the other.
Some actors have obvious breakout roles that change their careers forever, but Messina's been working his way to the top for decades before winning hearts as lovable grump Danny Castellano, and Alex of Venice, his first turn behind the camera, is suffused with a sense of maturity and restraint. The film centers on the title character, a young mother and dedicated environmental lawyer played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), with Messina as her unhappy husband George. But the actor-director cedes the main stage to his talented co-star, and in doing so, presents a portrait of an unusually nuanced female protagonist.
The daughter of a fading TV actor (a terrific Don Johnson), Alex got pregnant with her son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) at age 19, and has since gone back to school, gotten her law degree, and discovered her passion, a career that frequently takes her away from home for long hours. When George abruptly leaves, confessing, "I can't be your housewife anymore," she's floored, but the film doesn't pin him with being an easy villain. She has taken his presence for granted, and in the flux that follows, she tries to juggle caring for her son, dealing with a father whose pot-fueled flakiness may be covering up a deeper problem, welcoming back a boundary-free sister (Katie Nehra, also one of the screenwriters), and heading up a legal case against a developer (Derek Luke) whose construction is having negative effects on the local wetlands.
Though Alex of Venice begins with a breakup, it becomes the story of how Alex learns that she's no longer the person she was when she got married, and the film gently depicts how the changes in her life force her to have a new appreciation for what she has. Winstead has a marvelous openness as Alex that makes a potentially corny scene, like the one in which she tries Ecstasy for the first time, instead a tender and lovely one, a few hours of rediscovered freedom. The thoughtfulness with which the movie portrays Alex's flaws as well as her strengths allows for a retrospective understanding of why George wanted to leave as well as why she, and they, will be OK.
There's a lot less clarity on that front in the comedy Goodbye to All That, in which Paul Schneider plays Otto, a loving North Carolina father and enthusiastic runner, who's shocked to find out at a therapy session with his wife Annie (Melanie Lynskey) that she wants a divorce. Otto, we're told, doesn't pay attention, as signaled by his constant tripping and surprise at the revelation that Annie's in therapy in the first place. And the film seems, at least sometimes, to come from Otto's subjective point of view, with all the women in his life being bewildering creatures whose motivations and desires he can never really grasp.
Schneider, best known for his romance with Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls and for departing Parks and Recreation after the first two seasons, makes for a likable-enough case of arrested development, but Goodbye to All That never gives us a look at Otto from the outside and at why someone would feel as distressed as Annie is when she calls an end to their marriage, with no discussion allowed from his end. Though Otto is referred to as a "mess," he mainly comes across as a nice, attractive guy who quickly, and with apparently minimal effort, manages to sleep with a succession of beautiful women, including an ex-girlfriend played by Heather Graham, a sexually confident twentysomething from OkCupid (Ashley Hinshaw), and a nutty churchgoer (Anna Camp, who deserves better).
Unlike Alex of Venice, Goodbye to All That feels more like a tale of self-affirmation than personal growth. Otto gets counsel from the ladies who pass through his life, as well as an ex from his childhood (Heather Lawless) and his boss (Amy Sedaris), but they're living lessons for him to absorb rather than actual characters — which would be less grating if the end goal didn't seem to be for Otto to learn to stand up to Annie. MacLachlan wrote some wonderfully complex women in Junebug, including the role that nabbed Amy Adams her first Oscar nomination, but Goodbye to All That seems alternately bowled over by or resentful of its women, angling its depiction of divorce into something that comes across more as blame.