Alex of Venice is not unpleasant. Which is a weird caveat, but the problem with Chris Messina’s directorial debut isn’t so much badness as it is superfluousness—that it is less its own discrete thing than a redundant genre study in This Type of Movie. You can probably see and hear This Type of Movie right now in your head. For example: Midway through the film I promise you there is a minute-plus scene of Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) walking towards the camera and slowly breaking into a smile, and I also promise you that you know what this scene sounds and looks like without seeing it, or that Winstead’s wonderfulness in said scene won’t change how aggressively ordinary it seems. Messina and scriptwriters spend an awful lot of time introducing characters and scenarios that turn out to be exactly whom and how you thought they were the moment they are first ushered onscreen to the sound of the music you are now hearing in your head.
Sad-housewife George (Messina) abdicates his roles as BBQ-operator, nurse, husband and dad so he can go surf and paint. He tells his son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) that he’s in Santa Fe, which turns out to be more like “Santa Fe,” a symbolic town to which deadbeat dads can tell their sons they absconded when they’ve lost their smile: “Things are great in Santa Fe, kid. I miss you very much, but the surfing is excellent.” George leaves because wife Alex is an environmental lawyer who is good at her job. The movie sort of pretends there is more to it, but after George describes himself as a “housewife” the film engages in an aggressive campaign to totally ignore the gendered ramifications of any of this—so who knows what the point is? Anyways: irony of all ironies, Alex has devoted her life to saving the very surfable beaches and paintable sunsets of California that George holds so dear, but in getting comfortable with him picking up the slack at home she has deprived him of the time to enjoy them. With George gone, Alex suddenly finds herself balancing her job with parenting Dakota (Skylar Gaetner), nursing her father Roger (Don Johnson), and BBQing for family and friends.
Here is how many of the scenes in the movie work:
Alex, at the BBQ of figurative familial responsibility, is literally burning meat to a crisp. Her father and several friends ignore this because…the BBQ is her own personal mountain to scale, apparently? After a moment, her free-spirited sister Lily (Katie Nehra) shows up and is all, “I’ll take over this BBQing. I can totally figure out how to do it.” Alex’s meat is already burnt, people—but Lily doesn’t even care! She’s got an important metaphor to finish about how she’s one archetype and her sister is another!
Another example: Roger, who probably has Alzheimer’s, falls over trying to put a shirt on as pants. This is followed by a scene in which Alex and Lily sit at the kitchen table eating pizza and listening to Dakota yammer on about how he needs a new bike. The point of this scene is that everybody is ignoring what just happened. You know this, because every scene in this movie is perfectly calibrated to assert itself explicitly and obviously with an exact point. And while that’s a lot of modifiers to use to describe what Alex of Venice spends most of its runtime doing, none of them are redundant. There’s nothing to discover or figure out here; everything might as well be as annotated as Pop-Up Video.
Though it’s worth noting that Alex of Venice can often be pretty, like in a scene at a party where everybody is dancing except for Alex. Messina demonstrates that he has a good eye—but, again: the point of that scene, both literal and figurative, is so glaringly obvious that the life gets sucked out of it. Messina nails the tone he’s going for, but that’s basically like commending a house painter for nailing the Pantone color their client requested. With no messiness, no surprise, everything just proceeds inevitably. During a courtroom scene, Alex ends a passionate closing remark with the statement, “What it all comes down to, your honor, is our legacy.” Cut to Dakota walking sadly on the beach. Alone. And guess what lesson Alex learns by the end of the film.
The main players, particularly Winstead and Johnson, do a plainly great job, and the supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces. But it’s hard to get past how rote this all seems, so storyboarded that every scene is merely a postcard. Even the movie’s conclusion is a rendition; Roger performs Firs’ closing monologue from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, followed by Nehra (one of three credited screenwriters) joking, “This Cherry Orchard’s the shit!” This is because she called it “whack” earlier in the film. Either way, The Cherry Orchard, as Roger notes, was ambiguous. Alex of Venice is not. So routine it’s almost aggravating, it feels like not only watching a film you’ve already seen, but one you know exactly how you feel about.
Director: Chris Messina
Writer: Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, Justin Shilton, Chris Messina (uncredited)
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Don Johnson, Derek Luke, Julianna Guill, Katie Nehra, Chris Messina
Release: April 17, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.