×

Tribeca Film Review: ‘Alex of Venice’

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives an extraordinary performance in this uneven but pleasurably mellow indie.

With:
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Messina, Don Johnson, Katie Nehra, Derek Luke, Timm Sharp, Skylar Gaertner, Troy Garity, Matthew Del Negro, Reg E. Cathey, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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.

Popular on Variety

Tribeca Film Review: 'Alex of Venice'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight), April 20, 2014. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: An Electric City Entertainment production. (International sales: Preferred Content, Los Angeles.) Produced by Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell. Executive producers, Samantha Housman, Louise Runge, Denise O’Leary, Alex Orlovsky, Timothy J. Patton, Kent Thiry. Co-producer, Crystal Powell.

Crew: Directed by Chris Messina. Screenplay, Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, Justin Shilton. Camera (color, widescreen HD), Doug Emmett; editor, Amy P. McGrath; music, David Wingo; music supervisor, Doug Bernheim; production designer, Linda Sena; costume designer, Courtney Hoffman; sound, Richard Kitting; supervising sound editor, Steven Iba; casting, Wendy O’Brien.

With: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chris Messina, Don Johnson, Katie Nehra, Derek Luke, Timm Sharp, Skylar Gaertner, Troy Garity, Matthew Del Negro, Reg E. Cathey, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

More Film

  • Knives Out

    Rian Johnson's 'Knives Out' Sells to KKR's New Distribution Company in Germany

    Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” has been picked up for Germany by the newly established distribution company owned by New York-based private equity group KKR. Fred Kogel’s rapidly growing, but still unnamed, German independent production and distribution operation has taken all rights for Germany and Austria on the all-star whodunnit, which stars Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, [...]

  • Director Mati Diop poses for photographers

    Toronto Film Festival: Director Mati Diop to Receive Inaugural Mary Pickford Award

    French actress and director Mati Diop will be honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for outstanding female talent at the Toronto International Film Festival’s upcoming Tribute Gala. TIFF announced the news along with their schedule of events including live performances and interviews featuring directors and actors such as Oscar winner Javier Bardem. “Mati Diop’s [...]

  • Hollywood Recession Business Placeholder

    How an Economic Downturn Could Ravage Hollywood

    Trade-war fears, stock market volatility and, most recently, bond market signals that point to a pending recession are rattling investors, igniting concerns that another devastating downturn may be just around the corner. As those worries reverberate all the way from Wall Street to Hollywood, the entertainment industry is in for an unsettling reminder of the [...]

  • 'La Muralla'

    HBO Latino Snaps up Bolivia’s ‘Muralla’ by Gory Patiño (EXCLUSIVE)

    In its continued bid to provide a diverse range of films from Latin America, HBO Latino has acquired U.S. pay TV rights to Bolivian Gory Patiño’s thriller “Muralla” from Alfredo Calviño of Habanero Film Sales. “Muralla” was Bolivia’s official entry to the 2019 Oscars and Golden Globes. Back home, where it had a 10-week theatrical [...]

  • Wagner Moura

    Wagner Moura’s ‘Marighella’ Slated for Nov. 20 Release Amid Calls for Boycott

    SANTIAGO, Chile – “Marighella,” Wagner Moura’s contentious directorial debut, is slated to bow in Brazil on Nov. 20 but Moura fears that its domestic release could be hampered by ongoing calls to boycott it by conservatives and the government of President Jair Bolsonaro who claims, among other things, that Brazil’s 21 years under military rule [...]

  • Disney Music Group Launches 'For Score'

    Disney Music Group Launches Composer Podcast Series

    Disney Music Group, in association with Treefort Media, will debut “For Scores,” a new podcast series featuring interviews with film and television composers from Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. Set to launch this week, the podcast is hosted by Variety contributor Jon Burlingame and “will give voice to award-winning visionary composers, exploring [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content