Just in time for Criterion’s reissue of The Big Chill comes a new movie so indebted to that film that it sheepishly acknowledges the similarity not once but twice. “I’m sorry, you know what this is like?” protests Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), as she and five of her college friends sit around the dinner table at a secluded house, getting stoned and reminiscing about their glory days. “This is like one of those ’80s movies.” Golly, which one, Sarah? Did it perhaps star Jeff Goldblum—the name you puckishly suggested giving to a stray dog that turned up earlier? Granted, you and your pals are a decade younger than the Big Chill crowd, asking, “What happened to us?” a mere five years after graduation, but things move faster nowadays. Also, nobody died, but this impromptu reunion was inspired by a suicide attempt. Alex (Jason Ritter) even slit his wrists, just like The Big Chill’s Alex, whose stitched wrists are seen as his corpse gets dressed in the opening credits sequence. Are y’all gonna start dancing around to old music soon? Oh, look, indeed y’all are, just two minutes after the ’80s-movie reference. Might as well cover all the bases.
Thankfully, About Alex doesn’t assault the audience with a nonstop parade of overly familiar radio hits. It’s got plenty of canned crises and interpersonal conflicts, however, all of which seem doubly petty coming from people who are barely out of college and still have most of their lives ahead of them. Ben (Nate Parker) is an aspiring writer, but has been blocked for a full year, staring at a page that’s utterly blank save for the heading “Chapter II.” His girlfriend, Siri (Maggie Grace), endures iPhone jokes about her name and worries that her period is late. Sarah, who attended law school, secretly wants to open a restaurant instead. There’s the blunt asshole who insists that he’s a truth-teller, Josh (Max Greenfield); the guy who’s way more successful than everyone else, Isaac (Max Minghella); and even, in a nod to Meg Tilly’s Chloe, the “much” younger woman (Jane Levy), who doesn’t share the group’s experiences and is at the house only because of a romantic relationship with one of them. Plus, of course, Alex, who was unhappy enough to try to kill himself, apparently mostly because his best friend Ben wasn’t returning his calls and texts.
Written and directed not by Lawrence Kasdan’s son, Jake (whose Sex Tape is currently in theaters), but by Edward Zwick’s son, Jesse, About Alex benefits from a uniformly strong cast that does its best to find moments of truth in the banal, derivative scenario they’ve been handed. A millennial Big Chill doesn’t make much sense, though, since none of the characters have lived long enough to have any serious regrets. Consequently, Zwick is forced to amp up their circumstances and personalities to a ludicrous degree. Ben isn’t just a promising young writer—he’s a writer so promising that the bio for a story he published in The New Yorker years earlier reads “At 21, he is the youngest author ever published in these pages.” Josh isn’t just tactless—he’s a raging misanthrope who picks a fight with virtually every sentence he utters. By the end, Ben is writing again, Josh has toned it down, and everyone else’s problems have likewise been sorted out… at which point Zwick employs the flashback that Kasdan chose to cut from The Big Chill, showing the ensemble as they were back in college. Surprise: They’re all pretty much the same, except that Josh hasn’t yet grown a hipster beard and Isaac, now the hotshot financier wearing a suit and expensive shoes, sports a backwards baseball cap. It was only five years ago! Let’s give ’em some time to work up some nostalgia.