"Alex of Venice" has a lot to say about its characters, but it just won't quite go there, instead insisting upon the safest roads for its characters to travel. The screenplay by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton constantly settles, and that includes in the outcome of the central departure that spawns our heroine's just-squeaking-by that makes up the semi-narrative. When her husband, George (Chris Messina, who also directed), ups and leaves without a solid explanation other than, "I need some time away," there is the feeling that the heart of this story departs with him. Often, one side of the conflict is inherently more important than the other. Here, the conflict entirely pivots on a decision that is made with perfunctory development or insight on the part of the screenwriters; George is antagonized simply because he leaves, and we are left to wonder why that is.
It is not an issue of making us wonder what the Alex of the title (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) did wrong, and indeed George makes that clear upon leaving. The screenplay just simply doesn't afford his strange decision any sort of explanation or catharsis, resulting in a film that proceeds simply to document Alex' time while he is away. This is a movie exclusively about how she's able to cope with his oddball departure, and while that might be cause for some sort of dramatic clarity and impact, here the impact is minimal for a very simple reason: She copes just fine. Even their son, Dakota (Skylar Gaertner), seems to be doing ok, especially when mom and Aunt Lily (Nehra) console him and insist that it isn't his fault, either.
Perhaps the trigger is Alex' dad Roger (Don Johnson in the film's most complete performance), who is slipping into senility just as he's trying to secure some sort of acting gig (The play in which he secures a role is one in which he plays the eldest member of the cast), but that's unclear, apart from a scene early on in which George childishly loses his temper with his father-in-law's forgetfulness. Perhaps it is Alex' hectic work schedule, but any and all conflict is confined to the opening scene in which it appears Alex is perhaps slightly overworked (This is not meant to be sarcasm, as the scene sincerely addresses her job as a lawyer--Jennifer Jason Leigh has a cameo as her boss--as only a slight burden on herself and not obviously on anyone else).
"Alex of Venice" is pretty vague all around--vaguely affecting (The familial element is nice, I suppose, though under-developed beyond what makes up the surface of it), uncertainly romantic (Derek Luke has a supporting role as an opposing lawyer's client with whom Alex becomes smitten, but the subplot is left hanging by the end), and dramatically static (Even the central hook ends on a hopeful note that it could have done without; these situations, after all, are often fraught with the worst complications, and the movie sidesteps them). The performances are fine (Apart from Johnson, Messina does more forceful work in front of the camera than the light touch he has behind it), but this is a frothy affair that aspires to be a bit more than that.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Alex), Don Johnson (Roger), Chris Messina (George), Katie Nehra (Lily), Derek Luke (Frank), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Alex' Boss), Skylar Gaertner (Dakota).
Directed by Chris Messina and written by Jessica Goldberg, Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton.
Rated R (language including sexual references, drug use).
Released in select cities on April 17, 2015.