Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill had much to say about the angst of losing touch with your younger self and the noble folly of trying to reclaim it. Since its release in 1983, the dramatic tropes of Kasdan’s film — big, nostalgic musical cues and characters smoking pot and dancing goofily — have become as familiar as its central depiction of mid-30s malaise. All of those elements resurface in About Alex, a lightweight Big Chill reworked for today’s young professional set, which proves too clumsy and self-conscious to live up to its weighty subject matter.
Zwick makes a few changes to the formula. The ensemble is whittled from eight to a slightly more manageable seven, though it’s still cobbled from a hodgepodge of types, including a writer (Nate Parker), a high-powered businessman (Max Minghella), and a sensitive but driven career woman (Maggie Grace). It’s also a suicide attempt, not a funeral, that brings the friends back together: Alex (Jason Ritter) is alive to endure the attentions of his concerned buddies, and to witness all the resentments that get lobbed around over the course of the weekend.
Writer/director Jesse Zwick is the son of director Ed Zwick, the creator of the early-’90s television drama Thirtysomething, a show influenced by The Big Chill and that itself encouraged a spate of talky entertainments about young people pinioned between their pasts and new, adult anxieties. The younger Zwick’s screenplay probes the stress of up-and-comers acquiring the markers of success: partner, house, career, baby. When Minghella’s Isaac arrives with his much-younger girlfriend (Jane Levy), Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), a neurotic lawyer, crumples into a jealous, needy mess — though luckily for the rest of them, she relaxes by cooking elaborate meals.
Dramas about relationships are built on details, and too often, the ones in About Alex feel like elements of a screenplay rather than specifics from real life. Zwick isn’t confident enough to manage the tonal shifts, and his film even gets defensive about its lineage: “This is like one of those ’80s movies,” Sarah declares during one of several group meals. The others refuse to acknowledge this — “I just don’t see why everything in our lives has to be like something else,” Siri complains. Maybe she should ask the director.
In spare moments, About Alex has a wan, sympathetic beauty, mostly when it focuses on Ritter, whose kicked-puppy misery brims with things unsaid. Max Greenfield, who has honed his timing on Fox’s New Girl, is sharp enough to save caustic philosophy grad Josh from being totally intolerable. Zwick seems unsure what to do with the others, especially Plaza, whose deadpan charm doesn’t translate in the alternately timid and overbearing Sarah. Her late-in-the-game decision to open a restaurant with one of the men bears an unfortunate parallel to Mary Kay Place’s pursuit of a baby in The Big Chill. Both dreams required fertilization to become a reality (though in Sarah’s case, it’s money and business know-how rather than actual sperm.) Thirty years of revision haven’t been enough to edit out the requirement for male validation.