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Alex of Venice | Review

Touch of Venice: Messina’s Understated, Observational Debut

Chris Messina Alex of Venice PosterThere’s much to admire in actor Chris Messina’s assured, astutely observed directorial debut, Alex of Venice. Namely its central performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who carries this understated character study that rather uneventfully charts a workaholic woman’s mildly difficult navigation through the denial that her marriage is over. As written by its trio of writers (with Jessica Goldberg joined by first time screenwriters Katie Nehara and Justin Shilton), its dramatic possibilities are severely downplayed, instead attempting to reflect meaning off intertextual echoes borrowed from Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard (the play being staged within the film).

An attorney for an eco-advocacy group, Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is left reeling when her high school sweetheart husband George (Messina) abruptly announces he’s unhappy with their marriage. A taken-for-granted stay-at-home dad, who cares for both their young son and Alex’s ailing father (Don Johnson), who is suffering from increasing memory loss, George desires to pursue his creative passion as an artist. And so, he leaves. Now, the woman who has recently put work before all else must juggle everything on her own. While her dad ropes her reckless sister Lily (Nehara) into moving in to help out while he pursues one last hurrah on stage, Alex finds her life trapped in a tailspin. Initially in denial about George’s absence, she begins to realize that she’s been avoiding reality for some time.

Chekov’s famous play, concerning the impossibility of maintaining the status quo, is streamlined quite nicely with the other major motif in Alex of Venice concerning Alex’s eco-advocacy group and its battle to save a natural habitat and its resident tadpoles. Like these amphibians in transition, Alex has to evolve and adapt into a new, reluctant environment, her previous life basically steamrolled by husband George’s abrupt decision to leave. These tenuous echoes are evidence of Messina’s astute attenuations often absent in these types of indie dramas attempting to reflect the realities of modern life. One only has to compare Alex of Venice to something like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here to see that the undermining crutch of comic quirk does nothing more than detract from the honest emotional authenticity of such films.

Without a doubt, the real highlight here is Winstead, a lead performance comparable to her excellent turn in something like 2012’s Smashed but with even less dramatic subject matter. A rupture in the domestic sphere that we’ve seen countless times before, Alex’s trajectory isn’t very surprising, but Winstead manages to make the familiarity remain compelling in a carefully internalized performance that seldom breaks free from solemnity. A brief romance with a likeable Derek Luke as the very man her advocacy group is battling in court sees her open up a bit, and minor drama ensues with careless sibling played by Julianna Guill, the film’s mild comic relief. Another standout here is Don Johnson as Alex’s father, a retired actor slowly losing his memory. Struggling to remember his lines through rehearsals of Chekov, it’s surprising how emotionally effective Johnson is here.

DoP Doug Emmett captures a demure portrait of the touristy Venice haunts, and the locale looks as arresting now as it did back when Orson Welles turned it into a border town for Touch of Evil, and we capture the famed mural stationed outside the entrance to Venice Beach on a tracking shot of Winstead. Her character is of the type not often explored in Los Angeles film narratives—she’s a native, born and raised in Venice. Hence the film’s homerun of themes proving that no matter how refined or cultured or comfortable wherever it is you hail from, you cannot stay there, untouched by time and circumstance.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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