PLOT: Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a young lawyer with a thriving career whose husband George (Chris Messina) stays home to take care of their son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) and her middle-aged actor father (Don Johnson). When George walks out on the family, Alex is forced to rely on her father and irresponsible sister Lily (Katie Nehra) for help, while also trying to rebuild her once picture-perfect life.
REVIEW: ALEX OF VENICE is an impressive directorial debut for actor Chris Messina. Well-known for his work in movies and on The Mindy Project, Messina’s first film behind the camera is a sensitive character piece that works as another strong showcase for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s quickly establishing herself as one of the preeminent actresses of the American indie movie scene.
While not as showy a film as her earlier SMASHED, nor as captivating as the recent FAULTS, ALEX OF VENICE compares favorably to the kind of character dramas that were commonplace in the seventies (it’s especially evocative of Martin Scorsese‘s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HER ANYMORE)- but now are virtually extinct. It’s also the kind of work that nowadays could only really come from an actor-director, in that the objective here isn’t to build to some huge cathartic moment but rather simply to watch as Alex tries to make the best of a bad situation.
To be sure, Alex is an intriguing character. We learn that she got pregnant at nineteen, but kept the baby and that her husband (Messina) took it upon himself to run the household as she went back to school and started her career. While he walks out on his family, Messina’s character is by no means a bad man. He’s simply frustrated with his lot in life and wants a change, and his self-serving actions are somewhat understandable when we see the lack of intimacy between him and his wife. What’s even worse is they way he’s been enlisted into being her actor father’s defacto caretaker/secretary, as he chases auditions, but also keeps a roof over their heads thanks to residuals from his days as a TV star in the eighties (hints of Johnson’s own past).
One of the best things about Winstead is that she’s such a naturalistic performer. Many of her contemporaries go for “big” performances but she’s always been far more subtle, a fact that makes her consistently believable whatever the part. She’s perfect for Alex – who’s a go-getter but is also convincingly human, in that we see her getting flustered in court, and expressing grave doubts about her ability to juggle family and work. Winstead’s as drop-dead gorgeous as any major starlet, but she’s able to convey a certain degree of shyness, making it feasible that after splitting with her hubby that she’d be awkward trying to meet men (although she looks pretty dynamite in a cocktail dress). It’s really a nuanced performance and it seems obvious that sooner or later Winstead will be acknowledged as one of the great actresses of her generation.
While arguably Winstead’s film, ALEX OF VENICE also features a remarkable turn by Don Johnson. While him playing a gone-to-seed former heartthrob may sound a bit jokey, a bold choice is made when it’s revealed at he’s in the early stages of dementia. It’s shocking seeing someone as powerful as the still-virile Johnson (who looks far younger than his sixty-six years) lose control of himself, and Johnson’s performance is so good that were this a more high-profile release, he’d be getting award buzz (hopefully the studio will push him for an Indie Spirit nod). Johnson’s never had the opportunity to stretch himself like he does here, with his performance not only allowing him to play strong scenes opposite Winstead, but also perform Anton Chekov as he devotes himself to one last hurrah on stage, and solid bit where he confesses to his live-in best buddy (Reg E. Cathey) that he’s no longer able to remember lines.
While admittedly a small movie, ALEX OF VENICE is nonetheless one of the year’s first real indie sleepers and well worth checking out. Winstead and Johnson are so good that if the film only squeaks by under-the-radar it’ll be a real shame, as the movie’s got a lot of something that’s increasingly rare at the multiplexes these days – heart.