The Academy defines a feature as any film that exceeds 40 minutes, by which modest standard Joe Swanberg’s opus minimus “Alexander the Last” ably qualifies, though unsuspecting auds will surely argue otherwise. At a slight 72 minutes, the DIY director’s latest bout of psychosexual titillation (which is being made available on-demand in conjunction with its SXSW fest premiere) feels undercooked, offering the thin story of a young, married actress struggling to reconcile her feelings for her studly co-star. Still, as mumblecore gains momentum in the press, the pic seems poised to deliver Swanberg’s widest exposure yet.
“Alexander the Last” marks a shift for Swanberg, who cast a more professional ensemble than usual but directs them in the customary manner, forgoing a formal script in favor of his trademark collaborative, improvisatory process. Though helmer does not appear in the film, his semi-autobiographical inclinations certainly shape the premise, which concerns the challenges actors face in delivering a convincing romantic performance on stage or screen without compromising their relationship with a real-life mate (several of his past pics featured the director getting intimate with actresses other than his wife, to whom this film is dedicated).
And while the actors here may be slightly more recognizable to in-the-know indie film fans (none of them is as compulsively watchable as past Swanberg muse Greta Gerwig, however), they are still not widely familiar: “Teeth’s” Jess Weixler in the title role, Jane Adams as her director and Barlow Jacobs (“Shotgun Stories”) as the rather dull co-star who causes Alex so much angst. More important is the notion of the director opening his style to multiple takes (there’s even one shot that seems rather clearly looped, complete with the usual grungy background noise).
But despite this gradual evolution, the helmer persists in his minimalist, unrefined style, offering handheld digital-video observations of elliptical life moments most would find mundane: Here’s Alex scrubbing the apartment toilet, there she is fretting over a splotchy outbreak on her face.
In past Swanberg pics, sex tended to blend in with the background, just another routine in his characters’ largely uneventful lives, but not so this time around. Everything centers around a cleverly edited hookup occurring at precisely the pic’s midway mark. Until this point, Alex and Jamie (Jacobs) have been rehearsing an Off Off Broadway play in which the director is determined to find a way to make simulated sex seem realistic to a modern theater crowd (this might serve as an analogy for the film itself, if the playwright weren’t present in every scene).
With Alex’s indie-rocker husband Elliot (musician and mumblecore regular Justin Rice, who also supplies the film’s modest soundtrack) away on tour, she finds her feelings increasingly conflicted. As if to defuse the mounting sexual tension between them, Alex introduces Jamie to her newly single sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz). But as the rehearsals progress, Alex becomes competitive for Jamie’s attention, building to a scene in which Swanberg cross-cuts between identically blocked lovemaking: Jamie and Alex pantomime sex onstage, while Jamie and Hellen strip down and do it far more convincingly back at the apartment.
When Elliot does return, Alex is initially standoffish, but this test of her fidelity leads to a resolution that is neither narratively satisfying nor particularly convincing. Though similar in style to such recent pics as Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” and the Duplass brothers’ “Baghead,” in which characters frequently and openly discuss their feelings, “Alexander the Last” leaves far more to subtext and interpretation. If such films were judged by wince factor alone — the degree to which auds identify with moments of discomfort between characters — this would still be a minor work even by mumblecore standards.