I remember seeing a trailer for About Alex that included the blurb, “The Big Chill for millennials” and honestly wondering if it was meant as praise or an insult.
Director Jesse Zwick’s first feature follows a group of semi-distanced friends in their late 20s as they reunite for a weekend in an upstate New York cabin, following an attempted suicide by the title character, Alex (Jason Ritter). Just to get it out of the way early, I’d like to say here that I think the trope of romanticizing suicide and using it as a signifier for The Beautiful Tragic Moment is ugly and lazy. To be fair, About Alex makes a few half-baked attempts to comment on this, but ultimately succumbs to many of those same traps of which it seems to be vaguely aware. As an example: the first scene of the film shows Alex drawing a bath, about to slit his wrists. Before he goes through with it, he pulls out his phone and tweets a line from Romeo and Juliet: “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” Zwick has mentioned in multiple interviews that his film is meant to comment on how modern devices and technology affect how close we are to one another. That in mind, it’s not clear what we’re to make of this initial moment. It’s not really played for laughs, but it’s also not quite serious. Maybe the director believes that smartphones have trivialized suicide? Maybe the opposite of that? Like many of the films inclusions of and allusions to social media, there is no real message. It’s just kind of there.
As the movie progresses, characters’ insecurities bubble up and present themselves. Ben (Nate Parker) is an author struggling through a year of writers block. His girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace) worries that their relationship won’t survive a job offer she plans to take in another state. Josh (Max Greenfield) is mired in academia. About Alex’s strongest moments occur when it plays off of these feelings. One can easily relate to seeing an old friend and thinking, “Oh God I hope they don’t ask me how such and such is going…” One cannot easily relate to a crazy melodrama involving infidelity, car crashes, pregnancy scares, face punching, and a plethora of other histrionics. This film eventually becomes the latter. You can practically hear the screenwriter (Zwick wrote it as well) announcing every few page-turns “and then… something really intense happens!” It’s good to keep events exciting and maintain momentum, but the action here is totally disjointed and developments are dropped when they prove too inconvenient. The overarching problem with About Alex is that it feels as if the plot-points were developed first, and then characters were shoehorned into the resulting story. Kate (Jane Levy) almost seems to be playing a completely different role each time we see her. It’s a testament to the strong work of a few cast members (notably Plaza and Ritter) that the whole thing doesn’t come totally unglued.
And that’s the strange thing about About Alex. It doesn’t fall apart. Jesse Zwick has tapped into (or inadvertently cribbed from a certain early 80s ensemble piece) such a warm, engaging little world that the flaws never totally destroy the movie. A number of moments still work — Alex listening in to someone else’s suicide hotline call comes to mind — and watching the wistful fantasy of getting the gang back together and saying the things you should have said years ago play out is, at the very least, endearing. The director entered this project after serving time in TV drama, where one often doesn’t need to establish characters, and instead needs to come up with intriguing situations for existing ones. It’s easy to see, then, how one muscle may have been twitchier than the other.
So after seeing the actual film, is it a positive or negative to be The Big Chill for millennials? I’m still not sure. Probably neither — which is the most millennial way I can answer that question.