Chris Messina’s Alex of Venice is an amiable trifle that follows the titular character (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her family throughout a variety of domestic hiccups both small and quietly game-changing. Alex is a workaholic environmental rights attorney, and her husband, George (Messina), is a frustrated artist of some sort who stays at home and takes care of the meals, the house, their son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner) as well as Alex’s father, Roger (Don Johnson), a stoner actor with a tendency to forget his medications. George is in a situation that has stymied many stay-at-home parents, as he’s grown to resent what he sees as his role of nursemaid to his wife’s ambitions, which is compounded by Alex’s constant absence and her attachment to her cellphone when she does manage to show up. At the opening of the film, George leaves, forcing Alex to re-proportion the various properties of her life.
The film’s centered on a predictable redemption theme: Alex will, of course, learn to appreciate her family and to qualify life in fashions that aren’t tethered to professional accomplishment. The pleasant surprise resides in Messina’s light touch with that banality; he uses the plot as a way to organize vignettes that mostly exist for the sake of their own beauty. It’s a cliché to say that an actor turned director exhibits a generosity toward fellow actors, but Messina displays a charmingly palpable affection for his cast, allowing moments to drift until they resolve themselves with an unexpected grace note that might not arise with a more conventionally disciplined sense of narrative. Roger, for instance, may be showing signs of Alzheimer’s, or a comparatively debilitating mental disease, but that thread isn’t explicitly mined; instead, it’s represented through Roger’s performance in a local production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. It would be easy to envision such a subplot as a joke in a crass director’s hands (Mr. Miami Vice doing Chekov), but Messina allows Johnson to plumb the poignancy that’s always been inherent, and underexploited, in his persona.
But Winstead is the reason to see the film. She has a wonderfully round, open face, and an expressive physicality that wrings pathos from minute gestures. She doesn’t turn Alex into a cartoon careerist shrew, off of which to score easy points; like Johnson, she informs her character with a level of vulnerability that’s largely missed by Alex’s over-worked staff and by a family of eccentrics tending to their own obsessions. Like Messina, Winstead rarely hits the obvious beats, particularly in a moment when Alex is trying to discern from a new lover whether or not she was any good in bed. Winstead plays this scene, movingly, as a thirtysomething who’s recently become reacquainted with the uncertainties of adolescence.
Starting with its title, which might be consciously reminiscent of Alex in Wonderland, Messina appears to be emulating the eccentric, melancholic, ultimately sui generis class comedies of Paul Mazursky, which often offered quite a bit of knowing context on a group of guilt-ridden yuppies without appearing to break a thematic sweat. Messina’s adept at capturing Mazursky’s gentleness (though he lacks the latter’s satiric shrewdness), and he appears to be working toward a visual layering style that shows the foreground and backgrounds of the frame harmonizing or disharmonizing as illustrations of the lively density of community. These layers are complimented by the warm colors, which establish the Venice, Los Angeles setting as a sort of magical beach realm governed by ultimately pure emotions. Messina is eventually a little too indifferent to the machinations of the plot, but Alex of Venice, however inescapably sentimental, is a romantic daydream that casts a lovely spell.