As so many mainstream films venture further into the screamingly implausible, indie efforts veer toward the understated and mundane, their realism obviating any perceived need for drama. But the pleasures of well-observed characters and small epiphanies are undeniable, and “Alex of Venice,” actor Chris Messina’s directing debut, is amply supplied with both, thanks to Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s extraordinary performance: Registering profound shocks with slight ripples rather than big emotions, she quietly commands attention. But the film around her proceeds more unevenly, determined more by actors’ rhythms than by the structure of the whole. The result will attract connoisseurs of the laid-back.
When Alex (Winstead), a workaholic lawyer for an environmental group, is suddenly abandoned by her stay-at-home artist/surfer hubby, George (Messina), her carefully ordered existence begins to fall apart. On top of her huge caseload occasioned by an important trial, she now bears full responsibility for the needs of her 10-year-old son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner), and forgetful dad, Roger (Don Johnson), as well as daily cooking and cleaning. The original can-do girl, expert at turning mountains into molehills (at least in her mind), Alex puts on a happy face and proceeds to multitask — with mildly disastrous results. Then her spontaneous, sexy, free-spirited sister, Lily (Katie Nehra, credited as a co-writer), arrives from New York and proceeds to assume the household chores in her own inimitable style, simultaneously prodding her overly serious sister to lighten up.
The pic takes its mood from the titular California beach town whose bohemian roots, though now gently gentrified, still envelop inhabitants in an undemanding embrace that is only superficially at odds with Alex’s ambition. (She’s currently channeling that ambition into an environmentalist cause that seeks to preserve an unchanging natural oasis from encroaching developers.) Indeed, the entire film basks in this universal acceptance, enhanced by Doug Emmett’s mellow lensing, which blunts the edge of all conflict. Thus Frank (Derek Luke), the rich, spa-building villain of the court battle, not only turns out to be dedicated to improving the economy of a fiscally depressed district, but also initiates Alex into friendly and hitherto-unexplored pleasures.
Meanwhile, the conservationists, though obviously committed, tend toward the autocratic (an uncredited, take-charge Jennifer Jason Leigh) or the nerdy (a tree-hugging, tadpole-mourning Timm Sharp). Even wife-abandoning George turns out to be a great father and nice guy once he’s allowed to pursue his own goals.
Cinematically, however, this love-in gets a bit bland. Welcome drama is introduced by Johnson’s Roger, whose valiant battle against the creeping onset of Alzheimer’s electrifies the otherwise overly genteel script. An out-of-work thesp who, like Johnson himself, is primarily known for his role in a long-running TV series, Roger lands a plum part (though one considerably older in age than the one he auditioned for) in a local production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” But though Roger’s stage acting wows, he can’t seem to memorize his lines, and in one chilling scene, he becomes inescapably aware of his mind slipping away.
Johnson’s performance here is a reminder that, curiously, despite his work in films like “Guilty as Sin” (a villainous turn rivaling Alan Rickman’s evil Teutonic mastermind in “Die Hard”), his talent remains underappreciated. But the film belongs to Winstead, whose minor-key thesping proves as compelling as her heavy lifting in “Smashed.” Alex’s gradual metamorphosis into a richer, more fully realized young woman is accomplished in hundreds of tiny emotional brushstrokes, flitting across her girl-next-door wholesomeness in ever-shifting patterns.