Somewhere between the near middle aged malaise of The Big Chill and the fearful twentysomething malaise of St. Elmo’s Fire lies About Alex, a mostly forgettable film about a group of estranged university friends coming back together for the first time in ages to help a buddy in need while learning important life lessons about themselves in the process. It’s not just that you’ve seen this film before if you’ve seen either of those movies, but that you intimately know exactly how everything will play out in this one because there isn’t much of an element of genuine surprise to Jesse Zwick’s debut feature. Sure, it’s well acted and assuredly directed, but considering the subject matter it’s like a grown adult still only managing a solid double while playing Tee-ball.
Ben (Nate Parker) is a journalist with a hopeless case of writer’s block who gets a call informing him that his best friend Alex (Jason Ritter) has attempted suicide. Ben and his wife Siri (Maggie Grace) organize for Alex’s return a weekend among friends, which means inviting along smothering and mothering type Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), the caustic, sarcastic Josh (Max Greenfield) who seems put out even being there, and Isaac (Max Minghella), a straight laced white collar type who also brings along his considerably younger girlfriend (Jane Levy) that no one knows.
Somewhat appropriately despite the title, everything with these characters becomes about anyone and everyone except Alex, who’s understandably nervous and still shaken up, but is for the most part functioning okay. Josh used to hook up with Sarah all the time. Isaac always had a crush on Sarah. Ben might be expecting a child with Siri. There’s a bunch of other stuff going on under the surface. None of these characters know yet how to care for anyone other than themselves, except maybe for Ben, which is why he’s arguably the film’s strongest focal point.
The film roars to life mostly when Parker is involved in a scene. Alex just experienced a crisis, but for the most part he can’t really talk about what’s on his mind. Parker effectively and sympathetically gives off the vibe of someone looked up to by his friends as an authority figure despite a deep feeling that he’s clueless about how to fix the current situation with his best friend. His scenes with Ritter (who is also quite great, effectively conveying someone still in the process of coming to terms with his life altering actions) and Grace are the highlights of the film. It’s an ensemble cast and he isn’t playing the title role, but Parker essentially takes the lead and makes the most of it.
As for everyone else, their plotlines seem constructed just so the film can have a scene where they all sit around a dinner table stoned and remarking about how their lives in that moment feel “like one of those 80s movies.” Plaza is doing some fine work in what might be her most sympathetic performance as a dead ended professional who should have followed her passions into a job she would be happy doing. Minghella plays a nicely sympathetic “I didn’t sell out, I bought in” kind of character. Levy is strong as the outsider who Alex can connect with and who feels peer pressured into feeling like she has to make the best possible impression on her boyfriend’s besties.
The only weak link here is Greenfield, who’s normally a great actor but gets saddled with a horrendous character here. Josh’s academic, overcompensating asshole is too overpowering on the prick scale to convincingly be a part of this reunion. He seems created only to give the film a sense of tension and unease that feels unearned and unnecessary. Having been through such a situation as the one seen here (sadly on both the Alex side and the best friend side) I can safely say that someone like Josh should have and would never be invited to something like this. If he was and he showed up with the attitude he has, he would have been asked to leave after he spoke two lines of this over-the-top, practically moustache twirling tripe that he has to say just to emphasize how much of an asshole he is. Worst of all, outside of a phone call that Ben makes to him at the start (that once again proves he’s an asshole) the film can’t even come up with a really rational reason for Josh to even be there. He seems to be there only because he was there in university, and for no other good reason. And the less said about his icky relationship to Plaza’s character the better. It would almost make Robin Thicke cringe.
But there’s plenty more that Zwick (son of Ed Zwick, director of Glory, Legends of the Fall, and the original About Last Night, which serves as a partial influence here) gets right. He has certainly paced his film well, never dwelling too long on single subplots before headed to the next story. He fosters a sense of camaraderie amongst his cast, and the film looks better than most entries in this subgenre tend to be. There’s just nothing particularly vital or memorable about the film outside of Parker and Ritter once it ends.
To give you an idea of how easily forgotten it was, upon leaving the press screening some of the members of the press gather around and tend to chat about what they just saw and argue over how they felt about it. We all talked about something else because nothing could really be discussed or talked about. I think that’s the first time that ever happened, and it’s not because the film is bad. It just is what it is and you’ve more likely than not seen it before or lived through something like this more vividly than the film can hope to achieve.