In 1983, Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill” hit theaters. The film, which tells the story of a group of college friends reuniting after the sudden suicide of their friend Alex, captured the zeitgeist of its time and explored what it meant to become an adult in Reagan-era America. Jesse Zwick’s “About Alex,” in theaters now, has been hailed as “The Big Chill” for Millennials. But that’s a tall order of which the film falls short.
“About Alex” opens with an attempted suicide. Unlike in “The Big Chill,” Alex (Jason Ritter) survives, and his friends converge on his rural home for a weekend reunion. Old dynamics, flames, and yearnings quickly come to the surface as the friends grapple with what Alex’s brush with death means and attempt to heal old wounds in an emotionally charged situation. There are questions of generational, and even cross-generational, resonance that the film explores. What is friendship in the social l-media age? How much do we owe our friends, and how much can we reasonably demand of them? When time has passed and friends have moved on to the next stage of life, who are we when we’re all together? For many in our mid- to late-20s, we’re asking these questions for the first time.
But “About Alex” doesn’t answer these questions in a way that feels gratifying. The film’s symbolism is too explicit to be profound, like when Alex finally goes into the blood-stained bathroom in which he tried to kill himself and begins to clean up, or the writer who experiences crippling writer’s block until crashing his car into a tree, upon which he begins scribbling pages on a dark country road. The old college friends are all unrealistically successful, despite acknowledging the recession they graduated into. Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) has a long-dead dream of opening a restaurant, but rather than living with her parents and interning, she’s a tax lawyer. Josh (Max Greenfield) is a PhD candidate working on a dissertation, but besides some very bookish glasses and pretentious talking points he seems free of the stresses of academia. Ben (Nate Parker) is struggling to turn out a book while working at a newspaper which apparently pays well enough to make ends meet. Their lives seem much closer to those enjoyed in “The Big Chill,” not today’s still-recovering economy.
All the characters seem a little too cynical and a little too bristly to be truly likable. Do they even really like each other? It’s unclear, particularly at the end when they all uncomfortably get together for one last picture before leaving. When Isaac’s young girlfriend (Jane Levy) has a marijuana-induced panic, multiple people offer her prescription drugs, and therapy gets thrown around like our generation doesn’t struggle with getting and affording healthcare. “About Alex” takes place in an idealized world, where twenty-somethings can easily get off work to fly across country or take the train across the state to spend a weekend eating gourmet food and smoking joints in a picturesque forest setting.
Although the acting is brilliant and the dialogue is at times laugh-out-loud funny, the plot feels predictable and cliché, unwilling to go just a bit below the surface and capture something meaningful about today’s twenty-somethings. In the picture painted of Millennials by this movie, all our relationships are unhealthy, all our friendships are lacking, and all our problems can be fixed with the right combination of therapy and medication. Maybe that was the case 30 years ago, when the lives of recent graduates weren’t dominated by financial instability and lacking opportunity, but it’s not the case today.
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