“You know what this is like – this is like one of those ’80s movies.” No one could accuse writer-director Jesse Zwick of being absent-minded in putting together About Alex; this is one indie that wears its main inspiration – The Big Chill – on its sleeve, like a beloved accessory. Luckily, Zwick’s knack for naturalistic dialogue, coupled with his easily charming cast, is more than enough to make up for the film’s lack of originality. While it covers familiar ground, About Alex still feels decidedly comfortable and easy to slip into.
A big part of the movie’s relaxed charm is its cast, culled from some of network TV’s best and most zeitgeisty shows. With Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Jason Ritter (Parenthood), Max Greenfield (New Girl) and Jane Levy (the late, lamented Suburgatory) all in the cast, it’s almost tricky to view About Alex as its own creation without imagining that you’re watching world-worn versions of their small-screen personas interacting. This is particularly tricky to avoid with Plaza and Greenfield, who share an immediately delightful chemistry while essentially playing aged versions of their Parks and Recreation/New Girl characters. That’s not a knock so much as an added bonus.
About Alex really isn’t about Alex, but the dysfunctional, far-flung family of friends surrounding him. When the title character (Ritter) attempts to take his own life, an impromptu weekend meet-up at Alex’s farmhouse is organized, with the ostensible purpose of supporting and getting to the heart of what’s been troubling him. None of his friends are more gung-ho in this matter than the anxious Sarah (Plaza), who exhibits strong caretaker instincts despite being more messed up than most of her friends. Other attendees include Ben (Nate Parker), an author suffering from writer’s block; Ben’s college sweetheart Siri (Maggie Grace), who is increasingly uncertain about their relationship; and obnoxious “truth teller” Josh (Greenfield), who delights in cleverly criticizing the world around him. Also in attendance are investment banker Isaac (Max Minghella) and his well-intentioned, 22-year-old girlfriend Kate (Levy), who soon realizes that she’s stepped into a fragile web of unresolved conflicts and sexual tensions.
Despite that potent mix of individuals, About Alex doesn’t attack viewers with exaggerated melodrama (fellow Big Chill update Among Ravens could take a lesson), instead allowing its disputes to gradually emerge. Zwick nails the dialogue throughout his film, ensuring that the characters he creates always act naturally and that none of the blow-ups – between Josh and Sarah, who alternately bicker and wind up in bed together, or Ben and Siri, so comfortable with one another that they haven’t even noticed that they’ve fallen out of love, to give just two examples – feel contrived.
A side effect of the gentle way in which Zwick both wrote and filmed About Alex (the picture has an appealingly warm glow to it) is that it never feels urgent or particularly mesmerizing. But that’s a trade-off that’s easy to accept, given the immensely enjoyable performances and uncommonly truthful script. When it’s exploring the realistically messy dynamics between its characters and allowing each of its actors opportunity to exercise both dramatic and comedic muscles (some of the lines that come out of Greenfield’s mouth are in particular equal parts hilarious and horrifying), About Alex is an absolute pleasure. In many ways, it really works as a charming, modern spin on The Big Chill – but simply comparing it to that film would detract from the feather-light grace with which Zwick is able to embue every frame.
Make no mistake – About Alex is not perfect. For most of its length, the film is agreeably low-key, but a few, scattered instances in which Zwick attempts to expand the focus from the lives of his characters to the spirit of the entire millenial generation (complete with token comments on social media and phone culture) fall flat. Still, even in those moments, About Alex is able to coast on the effortless charisma of its actors.
Plaza makes for an impressive lead, bringing surprising pathos to her anxious, imperfect protagonist in a performance that cuts out her trademark sourpuss snark and is all the better for it. Greenfield, meanwhile, excels as a contemptible academic who loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice (a less endearing but still three-dimensional spin on his New Girl character), and Levy does understated, strong work in the more limited role of an outsider craving acceptance both from the group and her romantically torn boyfriend. Best of all, though, is Ritter, bringing red-eyed desperation and tenderness to a role that could have been easily one-note.
With the class of acting on display, in addition to Zwick’s mostly excellent work scripting and directing, the film is often sublimely satisfying. Whether it will get better with age, like The Big Chill before it, is impossible to say. But Zwick has delivered a sweet, soulful debut that suggests he may have a more fully formed statement on our generational woes in the tank. And even if he doesn’t, this one is charming and sturdy enough that it just may be able to stand the test of time.
It's extremely easy to forgive an imperfect movie for its flaws when, like About Alex, it showcases a big, beating heart that is clearly in the right place.