Chris Messina, best known for his acting (The Mindy Project, Newsroom, Argo) puts on his director’s hat for Alex of Venice. The film is a coming of age story of sorts, just for a woman who is almost 30. Titular Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds her life in flux when her husband of 11 years, George (Messina), leaves her. Suddenly, disconnected Alex must deal with her complicated family life while working an important, time-consuming legal battle for the environment.
After getting married and pregnant at an early age (before she was 20), Alex had to mature much too quickly. She pursued a legal career that distanced her from her home life and forced George to become the stay-at-home dad. His eventual resentment of this position is what leads him to “take a break” from his marriage. Alex believes he’ll return quickly, but when he stops answering calls from her and their son, Dakota (Skylar Gaernter), she realizes she is on her own.
While she may be on her own, she’s certainly not alone. She lives with her father (Don Johnson), an aging actor more concerned about smoking pot than taking his numerous pills or picking up Dakota from school. He does, however, feel the need to call in Alex’s sister, Lily (Katie Nehra), whom she hasn’t seen in two years. Alex embraces the support she can get from Lily and their father, so she can remain immersed in her case.
The case pits her against a wealthy man (Derek Luke) building a hotel and spa on marshlands, endangering the environment (and the lives of poor tadpoles). Lily, an aloof, care-free spirit, tries to get Alex to focus on things other than work. Over drinks, Alex confesses that she’s only ever slept with one man and fears she may never have sex again. She confesses to having a crush on a guy at work, but that seems to be because he’s the only man her age that she knows. Trying to live a little, she dons one of Lily’s dresses and goes out to a bar where she runs into, of all people, the wealthy environmental antagonist. They strike up an easy flirtation, and soon Alex’s “sex problem” is solved (although her case is immediately more complicated).
As a coming of age tale, it’s natural for the film to focus on Alex (she is in the title). Her growth into a more responsible, self-aware, and less stern adult grounds the film. This is mostly thanks to Winstead’s stunning, delicate performance. She seems to be channeling Jennifer Ehle (in the best possible way), bringing elegance to the character (and even a little va va voom with that dress). She has such natural chemistry with the rest of the cast that it’s impossible not to find her endearing.
Less natural, however, is the film’s approach to the other characters. Lily’s sudden reemergence in Alex’s life comes with a suspicious backstory about her upcoming fashion line. As the wayward sister, it’s natural to be distrustful of her. Yet if she’s lying, we never find out. Lily becomes a substitute caregiver for Dakota, taking him to the beach instead of school and encouraging him to pursue his crush on a pretty girl in his class. She spends more time with him in the film than Alex does, a mother with seemingly little affection (or awareness) for her own son. But the film never advances Dakota’s story beyond Lily’s encouragements to ask out the girl, choosing instead to dwell for a final minute on his relationship with his father. Along with Dakota’s failed character arc and Lily’s lack of an arc is the affair Alex has with her attractive antagonist. It’s steamy and seductive, but after the case is over, he just disappears from the story, leaving us with another incomplete story arc.
The only character who gets a complete arc (other than Alex) is her father. He seems to be suffering from some from Alzheimer’s, unable to retain his lines for the play he’s in and suffering moments of utter confusion. When his condition becomes direr, he finally seeks some help. He’s given more than adequate screen time, but his story is so disjointed from Alex’s journey (and has such a lackluster resolution) that you have to wonder at its importance to the film.
With three screenwriters—Jessica Goldberg and Katie Nehra & Justin Shilton—taking passes at the script, it’s easy to see how these story arcs issues could fall through the cracks. But the strength of Messina’s direction redeems much of the film’s flaws. And Alex of Venice is worth seeing for Winstead’s performance alone.