You can make a strong argument that “About Alex” is this generation’s “The Big Chill”, and then you might add that they don’t make movies like they used to.
Both films, though released 30 years apart, are more than just a little similar. They focus on college reunions and suicide, and oddly (or purposely) the suicidal character is Alex, played by Jason Ritter in “About Alex” and Kevin Costner in “The Big Chill”. The main difference is Costner’s character actually dies, and Ritter’s character lives to discuss it in great detail with his best friends.
It’s not that I didn’t like “About Alex”. It has a talented cast and a compelling (though familiar) storyline. But when you’ve had the real thing, it is like comparing decadent chocolate mousse prepared by a chef in a fine restaurant to Hunt’s Snack Pack Pudding. They are both good. One is just far superior.
The cast, lead by Ritter, includes Aubrey Plaza, Maggie Grace, Max Greenfield and Jane Levy, and they do a fine job of mimicking the cast that made this film 30 years ago. You could probably match both casts character for character. Not only that, there are records played on turntables, trips to the supermarket, morning runs in the woods, talk of fellowships and dissertations, and Jeff Goldblum; he starred in “The Big Chill” and his mentioned several times in “About Alex”. There’s also plenty of in-depth conversations about suicide, honesty, and whether friendships can survive now that they live in the real world.
The screenplay was written and directed by Jesse Zwick, who also writes for the television show “Parenthood”. Zwick has another connection to “The Big Chill”. His father Ed Zwick was the creator of “Thirtysomething”, a television show that debuted after “The Big Chill”, but seemed inspired by the film. Again, it focused on a group of friends who went to college together, and had deep conversations about life and its expectations.
Zwick is a solid writer based on his work in “Parenthood” and “About Alex”. He may have based the screenplay on a concept already used, but I’ll give him a break since original ideas are few and far between in Hollywood. He developed rich characters and gave them believable conversations, and when I wasn’t busy making comparisons, it held my interest for 100 minutes. There’s a point midway through the film when one character compares the group having dinner to one of those 80s movies about groups of friends getting together for the weekend. They all but mention “The Big Chill”, and perhaps that is Zwick’s way of beating us all to comparing it to “The Big Chill”.
“The Big Chill” was nominated in several categories for Academy Awards, and although it didn’t win, it was critically acclaimed. Only time will tell if “About Alex” has the same fate. Even though I liked it, I’m not holding my breath that any major awards are in its future.