Alex of Venice (★★★)

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tribeca-alexofveniceAfter really impressing me a few years back in Smashed (which should have gotten her an Academy Award nomination), Mary Elizabeth Winstead again turns in a great performance, this time for actor turned director Chris Messina in the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival entry Alex of Venice. The movie itself is almost mellow to a fault, but it’s the sort of indie flick that offers you the opportunity to spend time with interesting characters as they somewhat quietly go about their lives. There are big plot points in the film, but spending time with the cast is the main pleasure here. Messina shows off the ability to direct, while Winstead is terrific and supporting cast (particularly Don Johnson) makes the most of what they’re given. I’m not in the love with the screenplay here, but the cast and just the overall mood of the movie worked enough for me that I can recommend it to you all. Alex of Venice is by no means a perfect film, but it’s undoubtedly a good enough one to be worth seeing.

We meet our title character Alex (Winstead) at a major turning point in her life. She’s a workaholic environmental lawyer beginning a big case against a developer (Derek Luke) looking to build a spa on a potentially protected part of nature. At the same time, her stay at home husband George (Messina) has decided that he can no longer just be a soccer dad to their preteen son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner), so he splits. He was also helping to take care of Alex’s actor father Roger (Johnson), who’s beginning to get forgetful. Alex is completely overwhelmed by real life, as she’s always just been focused on work, so Roger calls in his free-spirited daughter/Alex’s sister Lily (Katie Nehra). From there, Alex tries to balance her family, her career, and the possibility of having to start over again in the love department. Nothing here is particularly surprising, but watching it all unfold is fairly enjoyable, mostly due to the cast.

messina-1-tmagArticle-v2Though I think she was better in Smashed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great here, giving one of her best performances to date. She hits all the right notes with this character, never going overboard in any one direction. Winstead doesn’t always get parts this juicy, so I’m thrilled that she has this one, and she really knocks it out of the park. She’s clearly the star, with everyone else in her orbit. The other cast members are all fine, but Don Johnson is really the other memorable one. He takes a character that you think you have all figured out early on in the flick and does something very interesting with him. I won’t spoil it, but Johnson hasn’t been this good in a very long time. Chris Messina gives himself a fairly undemanding role, while the likes of Skylar Gaertner, Derek Luke, and Katie Nehra are content to just do their parts and be done with it, though Luke is certainly solid enough. Other cast members include Jennifer Jason Leigh (in basically a cameo), Will McCormack, Timm Sharp, and a few others, but Johnson is the only one who even comes close to Winstead. She’s just above and beyond here.

Messina chose a very interesting project for his directorial debut. It’s not what you’d normally expect an actor to tackle his first time out, but he exudes confidence from behind the camera. Had he been working from a slightly more polished script, this might have been something special. Co-star Nehra is one of the scribes, along with Jessica Goldberg and Justin Shilton, and while they’re screenplay has some solid moments, it feels like something that was a bit too broadly sketched out. The performances save this movie, so while the cast deserves a lot of credit for that, Messina also does as well, since he was able to get those performances out of them.

Basically, Alex of Venice is a solid yet forgettable flick here at Tribeca. I wouldn’t expect it really to go too far, but it features Winstead doing something special and announces Messina as a filmmaker to watch, so that’s certainly enough to get my recommendation. As long as your expectations for this one aren’t sky high, I’d expect that Alex of Venice will be an acceptable cinematic experience.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!