Somewhere past the midpoint of About Alex, a gang of old college friends are sitting around a country-house dinner table lamenting their increasing maturity when one observes: “This is like one of those eighties movies.” There follows a lively debate about why nobody these days can ever experience anything without making a cultural comparison.
The scene is steeped in self-referential irony: About Alex is a remake of The Big Chill with Millennials on the cusp of 30 subbing for Baby Boomers on the cusp of 40 – and that is its strength or its weakness, depending on your demographic prejudices. Written and directed by neophyte Jesse Zwick (son of Hollywood veteran Ed Zwick,) the film is as formulaic as its much-touted predecessor but more intelligent in places; the chronicle of a less self-absorbed generation, it’s less annoying than The Big Chill but also less funny.
The Big Chill began with the funeral of the suicidal Alex who, having given his friends and director Lawrence Kasdan a nice excuse for a get-together, never reappeared. (Flashback scenes featuring Kevin Costner were cut.) Our latter-day Alex (Jason Ritter) is provocatively alive, having tweeted out a prophetic line from Shakespeare and slashed his wrists in the bathtub before calling the hospital himself. So, his friends gather at the lonely rural house left to him by his father in an effort to either cheer him up or monitor his mental health.
Facing that moment in one’s late 20s or early 30s where, for good or for ill, the future starts to become clear, the characters fall into two categories: the noisy and the quiet. The neurotic lawyer Sarah and cynical PhD student Josh are well-observed types, loudly and amusingly performed by Aubrey Plaza and Max Greenfield as a Beatrice-and-Benedick duet. They are the chief spokespeople of their generation, forever debating whether Facebook is socially isolating or Arcade Fire angst-defining.
The other personalities are all quieter and realer, but this is where Zwick runs into problems with his ensemble formula: with seven characters to follow, he just doesn’t have space to give their many dilemmas a fair hearing. In particular, the relationship between the sad-eyed, apologetic Alex, touchingly created by Ritter, and his best friend, Ben, an up-and-coming novelist with writer’s block, is filled with hints of a homoerotic dependency that is never explored. Nate Parker’s Ben is a sympathetic sort – indeed, he seems far too decent and well-rounded a character to be a promising writer – but both his professional woes and the crossroads he has reached in his relationship with the graceful Siri (Maggie Grace) are emotional developments in the script that only feel rote.
Jane Levy does a nice turn as the one outsider, the younger girlfriend of the prosperous West Coast businessman Isaac (Max Minghella), but the sweetly polite, strait-laced figure she successfully creates seems a rather unlikely candidate to volunteer on a suicide-prevention hotline. It’s of those coincidences that has everything to do with the film’s pat ending and nothing to do with its actual characters.
The actors struggle with these limitations in the script and few of the appearances here are going to be the career-launching performances for which The Big Chill became famous. And yet, About Alex is a more sympathetic movie than its iconic predecessor because it portrays a generation that is aware it’s not unique. Always looking over their shoulders to find that the boisterous Baby Boom has entered the room, the Millennials worry they can never experience a new moment or create an original thing. Of course, remakes of The Big Chill are hardly going to solve that problem.