Review: 'About Alex'

From the very beginning, as old college friends gather at a huge, beautiful home in the woods after a friend's suicide attempt, "About Alex" has a distractingly high number of clichés swarming about it like crows in a blue sky. It's a standard-issue BFF BFF film, where Best Friends Forever gather at a Big F**king Farmhouse to talk about their feelings, air out resentments, eventually talk about what they mean to each other and make poor choices in bedmates. When you realize that the film is written and directed by Jesse Zwick -- son of Edward Zwick, who in part gave us "thirtysomething," aka "The Big Chill: The Series" -- the clutter of clichés threatens to block out the sun. And when, late in the film, a character actually says, "This is like one of these '80s movies," the familiar, tired bits and business make the shadows of lameness into a darkness that overtakes everything, full and all-enveloping.

This sounds a bit harsh, but dear reader, actually watching "About Alex" is a much more complex experience than that. While there are broad swaths of "About Alex" made solely out of leftovers and scraps from other, better films -- or, even more distressingly, other, worse films -- there are individual scenes in it that suggest that Jesse Zwick is not without a future as a screenwriter, and there are some nice inter-character moments here written with care and attention and intelligence.

And oh, that those few scenes were the movie. Instead, our plot begins as Alex (Jason Ritter, the strongest actor of the ensemble in a runaway) sends a tweet for help before a suicide attempt; his friends, all informed one by one, gather to help him at his huge, beautiful East Coast farmhouse that he somehow maintains with no visible or ever-mentioned means of support. There's Ben and Siri (Nate Parker and Maggie Grace) the group's longest-standing couple, with him blocked on his novel and her hesitating about taking a job in L.A.; Josh (Max Greenfield), a cynical, stalled-out PHd candidate writing a thesis about "The future biography" that "no one will ever read." Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) is a burnt-out tax attorney with a chef's heart; Isaac (Max Minghella) also arrives with his younger girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy) in his bespoke shoes and a sold-out, cashed-in level of success that stands out like a sore thumb.

Meals will be prepared; vinyl will be placed on the turntable; deep feelings will be discussed. "About Alex" is somehow both sloppy and seamless, like a Frankenstein's monster lurching around without any scars; its ready-for-the-small-screen sensibility reminded me of the cutting joke about Noah Baumbach's recent and excellent collaboration with Greta Gerwig where some smart aleck asked, wisely and cruelly, if "Frances Ha" had been picked up for series yet. It's the kind of film where people say things like "I got the fellowship ..." and "I'm ... late,' like generic dramatic signposts on a well-traveled road.

Still, scenes like Levy and Plaza talking about Minghella or Ritter's plaintive explanation of his gesture towards death are, in fact, well-done and well-written. But for every great scene there's a moment that drags the film back down, like when the crew proposes naming the stray dog they've met "Jeff Goldblum" -- just in case you didn't see any of the parallels to "The Big Chill" in this, "The iChill" -- that leaves you more inclined to roll your eyes than to open your heart.

Ritter excels, while Plaza has a few nice scenes where she doesn't rely overly much on some of her too-familiar mannerisms; a lot of the movie is predicated on whether or not you find the idea of Greenfield just being 'charming' and 'funny' as appealing as Greenfield and his director clearly do. Much of the problem with "About Alex" is that it feels like an album of cover songs more than all-new material, and none of the changes in tempo or tone from the originals it riffs on can make it original in and of itself. At one point, missing the point, Greenfield barks out how "The only thing I hate more than the present is nostalgia for the past." The only thing moviegoers will hate more than the phony, faux-felt conversations of "About Alex" at its worst is the unfulfilled promise its high points suggest when it's at its best.

SCORE: 4.0 / 10