Every group of friends in any generation has its “big chill moment,” a point where the immortality of youth proves to be anything but that. And for Millennials, those first icy fingers can be especially cold with an adulthood that never came. Thus enter Jesse Zwick’s writing and directorial debut, About Alex. As a candidly funny, insightful, and low-pressure film about six college friends who are brought back together because of the (attempted) suicide of an old buddy, this charming ensemble showcase more than justifies its reappropriation of that Baby Boomer classic.
Jason Ritter plays Alex, the titular troubled case who claims to be an actor, yet seems to rarely leave the spaciously rustic upstate New York home that his father left him. Despite participating in all his friends’ lives via Twitter and Facebook, the roughly 30-year-old man seems infinitely alone when he puts on a suit a size too big and crawls into a bathtub with his smartphone in hand, tweeting his final thoughts to the world. He then proceeds to open his wrists.
Fortunately, the self-destruction diverges from previous reunion movies when Alex ends up in the hospital still breathing. The attempt causes his disparate NYU pals, now in their early 30s, to scramble to his home for the weekend, starting with Ben (Nate Parker), his best friend since freshman year who, despite living only a few hours away in Brooklyn with his long-time college girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace), has not been up to see his mate in ages. There’s also frustrated academic Josh (Max Greenfield), a conversational malcontent that claims to be working on his PhD, but seems happiest when taking shots at Alex’s selfish and short-sighted tendencies. This brings Josh into direct conflict with old dorm drama flame Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), the perpetually indebted corporate lawyer wondering about the road not taken when in the company of Isaac (Max Minghella), the group’s former nerdy Omega that’s made it rich as a San Francisco businessman, allowing him to bring his intern-girlfriend (Jane Levy) along for this auspiciously awkward holiday.
What is meant to be an affirmation of life for Alex turns into a makeshift reunion for everyone with all the expected romances, rivalries, and grudges exhumed in this Millennial state of the union.
About Alex is a meditation on friends growing apart that adds the timely wrinkle of the drift occurring in the supposedly binding social media age. In an era where every action is a potential meme, and no statement isn’t a reflexively postmodern arrogation of pop culture, intent matters more than originality. After all, Alex couldn’t even be bothered to write his own last words for a suicide tweet that consisted of “ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Zwick’s cast of witty revelers make knowing acknowledgement of this when they chat about Jeff Goldblum and their favorite 1980s movies. This will likely be too on-the-nose for some critics breathing in The Big Chill, but don’t blame Alex and company; they grew up seeing it all before in their parents’ movies—or at least the best bits via YouTube clips on a friend’s wall post.
Still, unlike that Lawrence Kasdan movie, this sudden reflection of death comes slightly earlier for a generation that did not inherit the keys to the post-war kingdom, but instead is witnessing a diminished generational net worth, a fact that’s astutely addressed by Greenfield’s Josh. Not that Josh is any more mature than the rest of this personality assortment. As a pompous intellectual who still treats life like it’s the first semester of a freshman seminar in sociology, he’s as big a man-child as Ritter’s amiable loner. It is a standout performance for Greenfield that’s equal parts comedic ninjutsu and poignant boorishness. He’s long stolen scenes in New Girl, but here he is equally giving in this wounded portrait of the aged spoiled brat.
Greenfield plays best off of Plaza who likewise sheds her sitcom sheen of bone-dry deadpan to embody the authoritatively friendly den mother of the group. Plaza’s Sarah is a cookaholic and unsurprisingly wants to treat Alex with oven mitts, but her warmth can still be scalding. She was the one whose entire romantic life was messed up at genesis while in college with her first boyfriend, Josh, back when he was pining for beautifully blonde Siri. So, clearly she has many mixed feelings about her “dorm family,” including its most envied member, Isaac, the one who moved the furthest away to the West Coast and who came back in a suit. To some, he is not to be trusted since he now wears Italian loafers and, worse, he might have become a Republican. He also brought a plus-one to this suicide-get-together in the form of his 22-year-old girlfriend.
Levy’s Kate is an interesting inclusion because of the intriguing contrast she makes with the youngin’ of the friend circle in The Big Chill. In that older movie, Meg Tilly plays the wayward girlfriend of the permanently absent party who was going through a mid (or final) life crisis. The Jane Levy character is similarly coddled and treated as a kid in About Alex because she cannot handle her booze or weed like the rest of them. Yet, it is worth noting that she is not a child of Josh’s aforementioned economic downturn graduation bubble. She grew up with social media as a fact of life and reminds the characters and audiences alike, possibly for the first time, that Millennials are no longer the youngest ones in any given gathering. Indeed, she is the most grown-up of anyone in the movie, treating her job as a suicide hotline counselor with more seriousness and poise than any other character’s behavior.
Which brings us back to Alex, and his actions that ultimately boil down to being a cry for help at Ben and Siri. These three characters, played with great appeal, emerge as the central triangle of the narrative, though not necessarily a romantic one. Ben is the writer of the group who stayed in New York to craft his first theatrical masterpiece, yet nearly a decade later still drags his long writer-blocked feet when Siri gets a job offer in LA. It’s the quintessential quarter-life crisis that occurs in these movies, but Parker and Grace will invest audiences into its conclusion. These were the two who were supposed to be there most for Alex, yet despite noticing “erratic tweets,” they never made the drive or even answered the phone until Alex ruined his downstairs bathtub.
About Alex invites audiences into a group of wonderfully realized friends played with sincere affability and endearment by seven actors rejoicing at chance to dig into such winsome roles. Set almost entirely in a rundown house in the woods, the movie has nowhere to go but inside their performances, which lay these quirky and all-too-familiar personalities bare. Jesse Zwick, son of filmmaker Edward Zwick, said at the Tribeca Film Festival that they were primarily based on his own connections from college days more than any filmic influence. Still, it is easy to see that the inciting incident and theme, which drives these types together, is a well-known one amongst filmgoers. If you can overlook the obvious déjà vu, this is one that also finds a remarkable new context with its cultural snapshot.
***This review was first published on April 24, 2014.