THE MESSINA PROJECT
Alex of Venice
Review by Paul Preston
I’ve been to Venice many times. It’s only about twelve miles from where I live in Burbank, yet it truly is traveling to another world. The air is different, the sun hits more places around you, fewer shirts are worn, hair grooming is optional, there’s that breeze and art galleries and pot dispensaries are as common as a Walgreens in the suburbs. All these aspects of the fantasyland known as Venice are represented in “Alex of Venice”, Chris Messina’s easy-to-like directorial debut, as well as a few places I didn’t know existed.
For example, did you know that families exist in Venice? Not just the ones pictured in “American History X”, but actual fathers and daughters and husbands and kids? Messina’s opening shots (captured by DP Doug Emmett) introduce viewers to a place that feels far away, yet is so close.
“Alex of Venice” brings with it all the best elements you’ve come to want in an indie film: drama, humor, romance and an overall welcome effort to keep it simple.
The Alex of the Title is an overworked lawyer in the midst of a conservationist legal battle who is suddenly saddled with a separation. Her stay-at-home husband George wants more than to take care of the kids and her aging father, he wants to discover himself. By surfing? We’re not entirely sure, but the writing and Messina’s performance draw George as more layered than a simple antagonist to Alex’s happiness.
As Alex, Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a remarkable performance soaked in empathy. There’s great entertainment in watching her TRY. For the love of god, she TRIES and TRIES to make it all work – being a mom, caring for her father, focusing on the court case, flirting with a new romance, being social and accepting her sister brought in to help with it all (played by Katie Nehra, whose eclectic style personifies California girl).
As Alex’s father, Don Johnson, in a bit of “Birdman”-esque casting, plays an aging TV star. His days of headlining television shows are over and he’s now auditioning for local plays, a goal hindered by an onset of dementia. Watch the many seasons of “Miami Vice” and you’ll agree Johnson is a natural performer, but nothing quite like the role of Roger has been asked of him before, and Johnson’s up for the challenge.
Alex’s journey isn’t without its hiccups, and neither is the film. I’ll never understand how opposing lawyers connect romantically and it’s not a brilliant move for her broken heart to pursue that. There also isn’t an overall goal to the story – Alex doesn’t have to achieve this or that, win the big game, you know what I mean – it does meander in a wistful kind of way you might expect from characters in Venice. But in the end, Messina’s keep-it-simple mantra (I assume it was a mantra – people chant in Venice) pays off in that it’s small moments and sharp human drama that carry Alex from one moment to the next on her way back to fulfillment.
Directed by: Chris Messina
Release Date: April 17, 2015
Run Time: 86 Minutes
Distributor: Screen Media Films