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Film Review: ‘About Alex’

Jesse Zwick's writing-directing debut is a well-acted but too-knowing riff on 'The Big Chill.'

With:
Maggie Grace, Max Greenfield, Jane Levy, Max Minghella, Nate Parker, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Ritter.

A pleasant, not particularly inspired entry in that overstuffed subgenre of “Big Chill” knockoffs, “About Alex” stages a bittersweet reunion for six old college friends (plus one tag-along) after one of them attempts suicide. That the attempt proves unsuccessful is merely one example of debuting writer-director Jesse Zwick’s softer, gentler approach to exceedingly unoriginal material, and neither the script’s up-to-the-minute signifiers nor its cheekily self-aware humor can entirely dispel a formulaic feel. Still, it’s not without its mellow pleasures, including an above-average cast whose names should draw a few more eyeballs than usual to this likable-enough effort in VOD and limited theatrical circulation.

That the troubled young man who sets things in motion is named Alex — just like the deceased in “The Big Chill” — is one of several deliberate nods to Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 touchstone, itself a key inspiration for “thirtysomething,” the TV show created by Zwick’s father, Edward (who receives an exec producer credit here). It begins with Alex (Jason Ritter) stepping fully clothed into a bathtub and tweeting a suicide note by way of Shakespeare. He survives, but word swiftly spreads through his once-tight circle of now mostly Manhattan-based friends — all of whom head to Alex’s large house upstate for a few days, feeling shock, concern, and a measure of guilt that they haven’t seen their friend in ages, or taken note of his increasingly erratic behavior.

Feeling that burden most acutely is Ben (Nate Parker), an aspiring writer whose longtime g.f. (Maggie Grace), has just won a fellowship that will require her to relocate to California. That Grace’s character is named Siri dovetails with the film’s overt critique of technology and social media, most of which is spouted by Josh (Max Greenfield), an embittered academic and the group’s self-designated asshole. Josh has a skeevy friends-with-benefits situation going on with Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), a brittle, insecure tax attorney with excellent cooking skills and awful taste in men, and also the one most overtly concerned about Alex’s well-being. Rounding out this self-involved group is Sarah’s ex, Isaac (Max Minghella), a rich kid turned even richer businessman who has brought his new g.f., Kate (Jane Levy), for the weekend. (Much is made of the fact that Kate is only 22, never mind that most of the actors look young enough to pass for the same age.)

Although it boasts its fair share of dramatic reckonings and recriminations, “About Alex” is at least judicious enough to apply the melodramatic brakes when necessary. Josh may be a nonstop snark machine (and Greenfield’s charisma keeps him just this side of tolerable), but the rest treat each other with enough decency that we can just about buy them as friends. Old secrets and resentments will, of course, eventually emerge, and the elephant in the room can’t go unaddressed forever — especially since Kate works for a teen suicide hotline. But until then, everyone mostly just hangs out, dances, smokes weed and flips through old vinyl, establishing a gently loose-limbed vibe further fostered by the warm hues of Andre Lascaris’ cinematography and the enveloping intimacy of Alex Brook Lynn’s production design.

As winning a presence in bigscreen comedy (“The To-Do List,” “Life After Beth,” “Safety Not Guaranteed”) as she is on “Parks and Recreation,” Plaza doesn’t seem entirely at ease in the role of a woman who feels perennially torn between a sardonic one-liner and an overcompensating gesture of kindness. Elsewhere, Parker and Grace have an affecting rapport, while Ritter has a wonderful hangdog expressiveness in the title role, perfectly capturing the attitude of a guy who could barely face the world before, and seems even less equipped to do so with bandaged wrists.

Zwick is clearly smart enough to have gotten a number of things right — maybe too smart. Explicitly acknowledging a debt to over-recycled source material is a bold move, and one perhaps suited to the present era, but actually name-dropping Jeff Goldblum, or having a character point out “This is like one of those ’80s movies,” feels like a wink too far. Postmodern and self-referential though it may be, this “Big Chill 2.0” isn’t as wised up as it wants to appear: It ends on a series of pat resolutions and too-easy breakthroughs that make its nostalgia look all the more naive.

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Film Review: 'About Alex'

Reviewed on DVD, Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 6, 2014. (In Tribeca Film Festival.) Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: A Screen Media Films release of a Bedford Falls Co. and Footprint Features presentation. Produced by Adam Saunders. Executive producers, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Youmi N. Ma. Co-producer, Robyn K. Bennett. Co-executive producers, Pete Brown, Jeffrey E. Janis.

Crew: Directed, written by Jesse Zwick. Camera (Technicolor), Andre Lascaris; editor, Garret Price; music, Joel P. West; music supervisor, Rob Lowry; production designer, Alex Brook Lynn; art director, Truman Clark McCasland; set decorator, Christopher Lauderdale; costume designer, Anney Perrine; sound, Matt Martin; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Ruy Garcia; stunt coordinator, John Patrick McLaughlin; assistant director, Inna Braude; casting, Linda Lowy, Will Stewart.

With: Maggie Grace, Max Greenfield, Jane Levy, Max Minghella, Nate Parker, Aubrey Plaza, Jason Ritter.

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