Alex of Venice

In much of his onscreen work, actor Chris Messina (The Mindy Project) comes across as a nice, good-natured sort of guy, so I suppose it's unsurprising that his directorial debut comes across as a nice, good-natured sort of movie. Alex of Venice is very much the sort of film that actors often make when they decide to step behind the camera for the first time: nothing special on a technical level, but very attentive to performances and committed to thoughtful characterization. It's consistently engaging, and intermittently excellent.

The film opens with Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) learning that her husband George (Messina himself) has decided to leave her. She's an attorney who specializes in environmental law and he's a stay-at-home dad, but in recent days he's begun to feel trapped. So, while George takes off to find himself, Alex is saddled with maintaining her busy work schedule, taking care of her ten-year-old son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) and tending to her increasingly forgetful father Roger (Don Johnson, Eastbound & Down).

It's a pretty standard “low-key indie drama” starting point, and it's followed by all sorts of low-key indie drama: Roger begins forgetting more things and wondering whether he's suffering from dementia, Alex has to start thinking about re-entering the dating scene for the first time in over a decade (George is the only man she's ever slept with), Alex's good-natured but somewhat reckless sister Lily (Katie Nehra, Half Nelson) finds ways to give Alex a series of minor headaches and a crisis at work demands more of Alex's time than usual. None of this is groundbreaking material, but it's all played with affecting honesty.

Winstead in particular is just wonderful as a young woman struggling to transition into the next chapter of her life. She plays every note the film asks her to play – maternal concern, heartbroken vulnerability, casual confidence, general bashfulness - beautifully, and there's a good deal of subtly moving nuance in the way she outlines her character's gradual growth. Between this, Smashed and Faults, I'm beginning to realize that Winstead is capable of playing just about any sort of character with unforced persuasiveness.

The film's other excellent performance comes from Don Johnson, of all people. His early scenes feature the actor in “lovable old rascal” mode (which is something he seems to specialize in these days), but as the film unfolds Johnson begins to deliver a performance of surprising depth and power. He's a struggling former TV actor who has just booked a gig in a local Chekov play, and the realization that his memory may be failing him is an increasingly unbearable burden. Johnson proves to us what he's trying to prove to his theatre director: that he's a real actor, not just a washed-up TV star. It reportedly took some effort for Messina to convince Johnson to play the part, but it's inspired casting.

Alex of Venice's chief weakness is its unfortunate tendency to neglect many of its peripheral elements. The legal subplot occupies a sizable portion of the film's first half, but ultimately proves insignificant. Talented character actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hudsucker Proxy), Beth Grant (Donnie Darko) and Reg E. Cathy (Fantastic Four) are wasted in throwaway supporting roles. Still, for every frustratingly unresolved story thread or missed opportunity, there's a refreshing or surprising touch: the way the film's seemingly one-note anti-environment villain (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher) turns out to be a much more complex (and good-hearted) guy, or the way the film acknowledges the ripple effects small actions have on the feelings of others. It's light and slight, but I liked it.

Alex of Venice

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Year: 2015