Saturday, April 11, 2015

About Alex (2014)

Directed by: Jesse Zwick
Runtime: 1hr. 39mins.
Google Play, Amazon Instant

Here's a story often gone back to in film. If you've seen The Big Chill, or any of the multitude of films inspired by it, this film will feel familiar. It's an attempt at a modern take on the story with actors from some of today's biggest TV shows, and references to social networking.

The story begins when lonely, depressed Alex (Jason Ritter) tries to commit suicide. It wasn't an earnest attempt at his life, he admits later to having been the one to call the hospital. Nevertheless, it succeeds in gathering his old college friends for a weekend away when they otherwise might have been too busy.

It's a dysfunctional family of college graduate friends who don't wait very long before airing their grievances. Alex's closest friend is Ben (Nate Parker), a writer with a bad case of block. He'd been screening Alex's calls, and feels responsible for Alex's state of mind. Ben's partner Siri (Maggie Grace) might be pregnant, but doesn't know how to tell Ben. Worse yet, she has a job opportunity in LA, but Ben fights the move because he'd have to quit his job. Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) is the groups cook. Ever since college she's occasionally slept with Josh (Max Greenfield), the curmudgeonly jerk of the group, despite her feelings for Isaac (Max Minghella). The whole group, particularly Sarah, feels awkward that Isaac brought his girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy), who no one else knows. And Josh is jealous that Ben seems to have everything in life he wishes he had, including Siri.

It's set in New Jersey, but it might as well be anywhere. It is however, fitting of its time. Social networks are frequently mentioned. We all use Facebook, and other sites, to keep up with our friends from school, when adult life has devolved our old friendships to the occasional status updates. These characters mention having seen pictures the others have uploaded, even if they haven't spoken to them recently. Sarah also frequently attempts to take photos, despite Josh's continued complaints. It all makes us think about the fact that these social networks give us the illusion of having stayed close with our college friends.

There isn't really a plot, just a group of friends hanging out again after college. The story, what little there is, tends to hit all the expected moments. Sarah and Josh sleep together again, and she later admits her feelings to Isaac. She also has a conversation with Josh about how their non-relationship messed up her expectations in all her relationships since. Josh forces a conversation or two about suicide with Alex, and Ben and Siri deal with their multitude issues. There's a lot going on with these people.

A weekend getaway with college friends is something we’d all like do, but rarely have the time for. There's a lot of memories and emotions shared. Everyone has problems, and considering college is an important developmental era in our lives, our college friends are aware of, and in some cases responsible for the way we turned out as adults. There are many complex emotions among these friends, jealousy, fear, guilt, resentment, anger, regret, but most of all love.

I can appreciate that these people have real problems. I like that they don’t really resolve each other’s problems, but they felt better by the end of the weekend anyway. Life, afterall, rarely offers simple solutions. Not to mention, life after college isn't easy. It’s made worse by the fact that our college friends, in most cases, are no longer in our lives. Being able to see them again usually makes us feel better.

Zwick manages to capture deep issues among a fairly large cast of characters, and weave them all together pretty well. It's a credit to his writing, and the actors, who bring charm and personality to their given roles, even if one or two are a tad underwritten. The rest of the film isn't without fault though. There are some scenes (without giving spoilers) that devolve into stereotypes of the genre, and a few situations feel a little too contrived. But when the film is on, it's rather well done for what it is.

It may not receive high marks for originality, but considering how long ago The Big Chill came out, it's ok to see a modern remake. It also makes references to The Big Chill, such as when Sarah suggests that they name the stray dog they find "Jeff Goldblum." Or when the group is sitting around a table having dinner, and someone says, “This is like one of those ’80s movies!” It's an attempt, without directly saying it, to acknowledge the inspiration. This is a debut film afterall, and imitation is the beginning of creativity. As such, I'll be excited to see what Jesse Zwick does next.  

Admittedly, I'm in the target audience for such a film. As such, I enjoyed it for what it was maybe more than I should have, considering its faults. There are many movies considered classics for the way they capture growing up in high school, or college. This is a film about that period just after college when we still don't feel like adults, and need reunions with our closest college friends when social networks just aren't enough.

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