Tribeca Reviews: The Subtleties of ‘Alex of Venice’
Despite the plethora of amazingly original independent films sparking the interest of film festival-goers worldwide, today’s Hollywood is rife with remakes. From the latest Spiderman, to a new-and-improved Carrie, to yet another Batman, the retro-franchise is in full swing. Is it the tried-and-true that snaps movie executives heads as they seek the security of decades’ old storylines and characters, versus a new and innovative narrative that leaves the viewer on the edge of her/his seat until the last moment? To be clear, the predictability of Hollywood stories (and financial success) can be tied to the collective unconscious of a society — seeking order and familiarity in art as a release from the chaos and unknown found in real life is as old as the writings of the Old Testament.
And yet, it can be oh so refreshingly energizing when a character’s actions refuse to fit the standard mold. Many indie flicks at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival did just that. It’s what is expected from an independent film. You enter the dark theatre, hoping to be whisked into a world that isn’t black and white, and where the fairytale ending isn’t the ending at all. Unfortunately, the new feature film, Alex of Venice, which had its premiere at the festival, leaves the imaginative palate longing for newer than new. Co-written by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton, the storyline is stale, falling too often into trope and stereotype.
The plot follows the sexual awakening of mousy Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a not-for-profit environmental attorney, as she fights a major development project. Alex may not be working for a Fortune 500 company, but she is, nonetheless, just another of Hollywood’s power-hungry career women who can’t bond with her child, has emotionally abandoned her husband, and has little time for her (ailing) pot-smoking father. Winstead, whose previous work included Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) and Smashed (2012), portrays Alex with magically subdued emotions, as if refusing to slip into the role for which she was cast. We grow to like her, even though we shouldn’t. When her husband, George (Chris Messina), announces he’s leaving and will not be attending an upcoming party, she asks quietly, “Who’s going to grill the steaks if you don’t come?” Her reaction to his leaving is authenticity at its finest: a soft tear while trying to breathe.
Messina — perhaps best known for his lovable and exasperating character, Danny, on The Mindy Project — uses a hands-off approach in his first time directing, allowing his cast to interpret their characters with nuance and restraint. Take young Duncan, for example. Skylar Gaertner’s performance as Alex’s 10-year-old son is stellar: a child of little words, his emotions unfurl across his face. The scene in which he escapes into headphones and listens to a space shuttle lift-off, as his disengaged mom screams into the phone, is one of the film’s most memorable.
From the moment we meet Frank (Derek Luke), the wealthy, handsome, cajoling real estate developer whom Alex is battling in court, we know there can be only one outcome. Alex flirts and flits her way into his bed, all the while trying to win her environmental case against his development proposal. “What it all comes down to is our legacy,” she argues. “No matter how out of control or how tenuous, some things are forever. We fight for them.” We wonder what she is fighting for, as the man she is fighting in court drops her a block from her office after a night of passion. If the film had merely stayed with this storyline, it would have had difficulty navigating such sophomoric drama.
But there is another storyline, poignantly drawn with the honed craft of Don Johnson’s talent. As Alex tries to find her way, her father, Roger (Don Johnson) — a down-and-out television actor — vies for a role in a local performance of Chekhov’s last drama, The Cherry Orchard. Johnson’s ability to slip into the skin of his characters — be it the suave yet calculating Detective Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice or Inspector Nash Bridges, who, many years earlier was caretaking his own dementia-plagued father — has been underrated far too long. His character’s poignant dance with Father Time — not only in his acting career but also in his mind — is what keeps the story from crashing altogether.
Alex of Venice, in its rawest form, seeks to unveil the struggles of every day people — the struggling artist (George), the driven idealist (Alex), the alienated child (Dakota), and the pre-Alzheimer baby boomer (Roger). The trouble is that there are too many cardboard personalities with trite lives to create the depth needed to make you sit on the edge of your seat in anticipation. Luckily, the actors cast make the film worth sitting through in its entirety.
Two other female characters — Alex’s untroubled sister played with joie de vivre by co-writer Katie Nehra and Alex’s hard-nosed boss played by the indomitable Jennifer Jason Leigh — are stock characters who serve as foils for whom Alex could become, were she to break out of her shell. In the end, it’s hard to tell who Alex is…or what her future will be.
Another in the positive column of the film is the cinematography of Doug Emmett, whose long list of credits includes The Bachelorette (2012) and Damsels in Distress (2011). His camera is a gentle symbiosis to the underplayed nature of the cast. Soft lighting and distant shots make it feel at times as if we are watching a theatre performance through a scrim, with the sights, smells, and sounds of Venice Beach permeating the theatre.
A good story, good acting, good directing, and good cinematography are the key to an excellent film. If the script fails, often times, no matter the cast and director, the film fails to rise above the dusty motes of Hollywood’s sunrise. Alex of Venice is not a brilliant film. The script is lacking in many regards. But lemons were made into lemonade by cast, director, and cinematographer.
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars
“Alex of Venice” was initially released during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18.