Two blond sisters, their faces inches apart, exchange mock wedding vows in bright sunlight; when they get to the man-and-wife part, they slip knotted-up dandelion rings onto one another’s fingers. Alexander the Last’s opening scene will strike a dispiritingly familiar note in those who’ve seen Joe Swanberg’s previous Nights and Weekends or Hannah Takes the Stairs (or, for that matter, anything by his buddy, Andrew Bujalski): More whimsical rehearsal for grownup life? Really?
Like those flicks, Alexander the Last is an eminently post-graduate, no-budget ensemble flick about fidelity issues and low-grade sexual tension. Alex (Jess Weixler) and Hellen (Amy Seimetz) are two reasonably well-employed sisters—Alex is an actress; Hellen takes pictures—with studio apartments. Alex shares hers with husband Elliot (Justin Rice), a musician successful enough to tour and leave her home alone; Hellen makes due with a strategic array of lovers, readily summoned by text-message. A love rectangle develops. Alex finds herself drawn to a studly actor, Jamie (Barlow Jacobs), with whom she’s working and who, in verité slacker style, crashes on her couch while Elliot is on the road. In self-defense, she passes him off on to her sister—a decision that merely brings yet one more horny, inconstant player into the picture. Elliot returns to a distracted wife and a beefcake-y dude languorously playing the ukulele in his kitchen.
Probably the most meta mumblecore movie yet, Alexander the Last plays at times like Swanberg’s ironic acknowledgement of the think pieces even now being written about him. “I think we should just, uh, pay attention to where there are question marks,” says the frustrated writer of Alex’s play, as the actors onstage mercilessly swallow the end of their lines. And, in presumable defense of his decision, in Kissing on the Mouth, to show himself ejaculating onto a helpless shower wall, Swanberg has the play’s director ask, earnestly, “How do you fake sex?” while attempting to choreograph a theatrical consummation scene for Alex and Jamie.
Not that everyone doesn’t take their shirt off anyway, eventually. In one startling scene, Swanberg cuts between Alex and Jamie awkwardly rehearsing simulated intercourse and Hellen and Jamie engaging enthusiastically in the real thing. In a set-piece far more formally inventive and emotionally succinct than practically anything this director has produced to date, the psychosexual dynamics that are usually merely passive-aggressively hinted at in the Slackavettes universe are instead neatly, vividly rendered. When, after rehearsal, Alex tells her director “I’m very exhausted trying to love my husband,” it feels like an inarticulate, childish fragment from a different movie entirely.
Elliot comes home toting a digital camera full of pizza boxes he photographed while on tour and, in a merciful act of filmmaking, Alex could give a fuck—Swanberg, in Alexander the Last, seems to have finally skated past cute. The married couple reconciles quietly, but convincingly, as do Alex and her sister, mostly because they all decide, toward the end of the movie, up-talk and creative-arts jobs notwithstanding, to become what they inarguably already are: adults.