Every generation needs a couple of reunion movies, and in “About Alex" we have another one: first-time writer-director Jesse Zwick doesn't so much swing for the fences as attempt to dribble a single down the baseline. This comedy-drama doesn't reach any untold heights, but with formula pictures like this, you can only hope the company is pleasant. With this cast, those meager expectations are reached.
Jason Ritter is Alex, whom we greet just as he's tweeting about his impending suicide attempt. News of his ultimately failed attempt circulates, from one phone call to another, before a troupe of handsome character actors find themselves sequestered in Alex's rustic cabin in the countryside. It's very much like “The Big Chill” in how these character represent a specific generation, willingly ready to discuss and dissect their own shortcomings. And then Alex returns home, and he's basically a ghost to these people, as they worry about their own problems while treating him with kid gloves.
What's frustrating is that “About Alex” is about anyone but Alex. We like this character because Ritter, after a sea of failed pilots and meager indie films, remains adorable, a winsome loner who engenders as much audience goodwill as a sad puppy. What we do know about Alex is that he truly loves his buddies. He's also hiding a secret, which results in a cruel third act reveal that Zwick deploys like a buried out-of-sight IED.
This cast is better than last minute twists, however. The picture is a lovely showcase for Aubrey Plaza, who is Sarah, the film's acknowledgement that, unlike other groups of buddies, these people have been hooking up repeatedly over the years. She has an easygoing chemistry with Alex, suggesting an affair that ultimately went nowhere, but also jibes with intellectual troublemaker Josh (Max Greenfield). But she still carries a torch for bushy-eyebrowed Isaac (Max Minghella), who instead has arrived to their getaway with a much younger date (Jane Levy). Plaza and Minghella should be the film's freshest commodity, he of the unlikely alpha male attraction, her of the unrequited, moony-eyed sadness. Of course, that comes with familiarity, given that Plaza and Minghella also starred in the reunion film “10 Years."
Alex's best friend appears to be Ben (Nate Parker), an unrealized writing prodigy who is still struggling with his in-the-works novel while girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace) pursues academia. This is a typical subplot, though it's impossible to understate how Parker smolders in this role. He seems like the only real grown-up amongst the men: Alex is boyish, Isaac is a tone-deaf capitalist jerk, and Josh is a class-A dillweed in tweed who can't help but pontificate about how rotten the world is. He doesn't need to do much for his dialogue to hit. You do wish there would be some acknowledgement that he's playing the “black friend” since these films all have one (Anthony Mackie played the role in “10 Years”), but Parker himself seems like he's in a different, more powerful film. His dissatisfaction isn't self-pitying, but ultimately attractive: when he wears only a tee-shirt, he reminds of the confidence shown by Denzel Washington in Carl Franklin's “Devil In A Blue Dress." At one point he gets into a car, and you wish he'd keep driving.
The conflict is transparently manufactured, a disappointment considering the richness of these actors and the good times they share. Too often it is Josh who is prodded into starting controversy as if this were live theater and someone missed their cue (Greenfield, with his shit-eating grin, is only happy to oblige). Levy, here playing a thankless role, gets to make her mark as a merrymaker who steals her scenes as the young person who surprisingly has her shit together much more clearly than the rest of the film's principals. Already these generations are dividing and subdividing, and it feels as if Zwick's insistence is that millennial malaise, thankfully, has skipped a certain age group.
Zwick's script has grander points to make: each of these characters at times offers a mouthpiece to his own concerns about the encroaching presence of technology on regular human intimacy. Facebook is referenced heavily as an evil, a community that encourages narcissism and false nostalgia. To hammer it home, Plaza even shares a line of dialogue comparing their circumstance to “an '80s movie.” These insights, not given a solid counterpoint, feel crowbarred into the proceedings, as if Zwick wouldn't commit to either his message or his actors. “About Alex” is about too much and too little, a sandbox for its considerable cast, but ultimately just following the reunion rulebook. Expect another one of these in five years or so. [C]