×

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.

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

  • Fox Searchlight logo

    Film News Roundup: Fox Searchlight Launches Searchlight Shorts

    In today’s film news roundup, Fox Searchlight starts a shorts channel, Uma Thurman signs with ICM and Miramax signs animation exec Michael Lachance. SEARCHLIGHT SHORTS More Reviews Off Broadway Review: John Guare's 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride' Concert Review: Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets Dishes Up Seminal Pink Floyd Delights Fox Searchlight Pictures’ chairmen Nancy Utley and [...]

  • ImMature - cr: MX Player

    Indian Streamers Ramp up Original Productions

    Ever since global streaming giants Amazon Prime Video and Netflix entered the Indian OTT space in 2016, the conversation around original series has mostly revolved around them, thanks in part to market leader 21st Century Fox’s Hotstar’s circumspect attitude at the time about producing content. Netflix had great success with “Sacred Games,” while Amazon rode [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Hollywood Agents, Writers Guild Make Little Progress in Talks

    Leaders of Hollywood agencies and the Writers Guild of America made little progress in Tuesday meeting to negotiate proposed rule revisions to how agents represent writers. The WGA said after the meeting — the fifth since Feb. 5 — that talks would resume later this week but did not give a specific day. More Reviews [...]

  • Village Rockstars

    Female Filmmakers Are a Growing Voice in India

    The Indian film industry has historically been a male-dominated one, but the winds of change are blowing across the country, albeit slowly. Better-served than the rest of the country is the Mumbai-based Hindi-language industry, where there are several active female filmmakers including Zoya Akhtar (“Gully Boy”), Reema Kagti (“Gold”), Leena Yadav (“Rajma Chawal”), Gauri Shinde [...]

  • Florence Pugh

    Scarlett Johansson's 'Black Widow' Movie Adds Florence Pugh

    “Black Widow’s” web may soon be growing. Sources tell Variety that Florence Pugh is in talks to join Scarlett Johansson’s standalone superhero film. More Reviews Off Broadway Review: John Guare's 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride' Concert Review: Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets Dishes Up Seminal Pink Floyd Delights Pugh has been on the hot list for this [...]

  • Mira Lesmana Sets up Indonesia Remake

    Mira Lesmana Sets Up Indonesian Remake of CJ's 'Sunny'

    Indonesia’s Miles Film and Korea’s CJ Entertainment are to co-produce an Indonesian remake of Korean hit “Sunny.” The film is a female-driven dramedy about a group of adult friends who reunite 20 years after high school. Directed by Kang Hyoung-chul, “Sunny” was one of the highest-grossing movies in Korea when it was released in 2011. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content