There is a fine line between homage and theft.
About Alex is about a group of old college buddies, now on the cusp of adulthood, who spend a long, tumultuous weekend together in a country house after one of them attempts suicide. There are long dinners, impromptu dance parties, and painful attempts to rekindle old passions. Fans of ’80s cinema will, of course, recall this exact scenario from The Big Chill, the 1983 film that launched the careers of Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, and others. But About Alex does not build on the successes of The Big Chill; it merely reproduces its much more compelling forebear.
It’s hard to know what first-time filmmaker Jesse Zwick was thinking. From the opening sequence in which each character receives the bad news over the phone to the central character’s name (yes, the suicide victim in The Big Chill was also Alex), there are so many thefts that it’s impossible to take About Alex on its own terms. At least Zwick acknowledges the influence. “This is like one of those ’80s movies,” one character exclaims, apropos of nothing. When the gang finds and adopts a stray dog, they name him Jeff Goldblum. But such winks to the camera only work if the story can survive on its own; here, they remind us of the better film that inspired this one.
Zwick does bring his own set of generational issues to the well-worn story. About Alex hinges on the notion that contemporary modes of communication—especially social media—make it all too easy to take old friendships for granted. It’s a flimsy insight on which to hang an entire film, though, particularly because these friends are so poorly sketched. Instead of complex, relatable human beings, we get 20-something archetypes: the Academic, the Finance Guy, the Struggling Novelist, the Chef.
It takes a magnetic actor to break through the malaise, and most of Zwick’s cast is not up to the challenge. As the titular suicidal character, Jason Ritter just mopes around the house like a bored slacker. But if About Alex has a saving grace, it’s the chemistry between Max Greenfield and Aubrey Plaza as sparring ex-lovers. Plaza shakes off the dry sarcasm she became known for on TV’s Parks and Rec to play a young neurotic who wouldn’t be out of place in one of the better Woody Allen films, and Greenfield steals nearly every scene as a smug misanthrope who sees insults as perverted foreplay.
Their interactions feel unique and alive in a way the rest of the film does not. It is not uncommon for a first-time director to lean heavily on his influences, but the homage in About Alex suffocates any original insights, personality, or style. While cinema has a long history of young filmmakers throwing aside convention, breaking the rules of the old masters, and forging their own paths, About Alex might be a case of a young director being a little too respectful towards his elders.
The film opens at West End Cinema Friday, Aug. 8.