Alexander the Last Review

They say that the best place to learn filmmaking is on a film set. Joe Swanberg, whose name is familiar to those who've paid attention to his dilligent presence in the fest circuit over the past half-decade, is a student of such pick-up-and-go education, known primarily as a reluctant poster child for the DIY new wave.

His latest returns him to the only subject he seems willing to work on: that of contemporary twenty-somethings struggling with the pangs of sexual and romantic relationships. True to Swanberg's preference towards creative types, it's about a stage actress who collaborates a little too deeply with her co-star while her indie musician husband is away on tour. As always, they spend a fair amount of the story naked.

It's a film as driven by the characters' professions as it is by their personalities. It's a collection of loosely connected scenes that seem to be invented to work on their own. A bunch of them are just the (real) actors playing around with acting exercises or sitting around playing musical instruments, and somehow these snatched scenes are engrossing when they're not supposed to be, almost as if the merits of the film hinges entirely on the deliberately showy performances rather than the premise.

Which, by the way, starts out as a half-hearted look at adultery, but then it's not. Alex (Jess Weixler) gets permission from her husband Eliott (Justin Rice) to let her actor friend Jamie (Barlow Jacobs) crash at their place, her excuse being that they rehearse late a lot. The close proximity, coupled with their on-stage romance, lead to a will-they-won't-they push and pull relationship, even though Alex's carefree photographer sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz) has already laid claim on Jamie as her latest sexual gratification tool. At about the halfway point, however, Eliott returns home and the film becomes more about commitment, or rather the lack thereof, when young people balance the demand of a relationship with the kinship of sharing a creative bond (the film is dedicated to Swanberg's wife Kris, and he admits is an apology for his own workplace flirtations).

It's navel gazing and borderline narcissistic, sure, and you always get the idea that these people who have the corresponding appearance of Williamsburg art scene dwellers think of their social misgivings as more watchable than they really are. But even so, there's always been a sincerity in Swanberg's films—something astute and eager to explore the imperfect minds of his generation. It's the benefit of a skilled hand that's been sorely missing. If anything, it's encouraging to see Swanberg exercise more effort in the technical aspect of his film. Alexander the Last is easily his best shot, most focused and precisely edited film. Perhaps it's the guiding hands of producer Noah Baumbach, or maybe it's the benefit of the more seasoned actors on deck.

Previously, Swanberg's projects often have that distinct commune spirit, of like-minded artists who happen to be friends. The process is the art, that sort of outlook. Here, he has Jess Weixler (Teeth), Jane Adams (Hung), Josh Hamilton (Away We Go) and Barlow Jacobs (Shotgun Stories); actors who he directed in his usual collaborative fashion (all of them received an "additional material" writing credit), certainly, but also finally have the assured screen charisma beyond the usual down-to-earth next door disposition that gets tiresome after the first act. Weixler is especially buoyant, shifting effortlessly between playful-cute and flushed befuddlement as Alex.

DVD Bonus Features

Joe Swanberg's commentary is heavy on details, almost excessively so, where he can ramble on production anecdotes regarding the smallest of things. It's welcome at times, dull in others.

It also illustrates how he views the filmmaking process, as he sounds keen on revealing the film's shortcomings by explaining plot points that he admits are unclear. "I'm pretty bad at narrative," he admits at one point. "I don't feel like I'm up to the challenge of directing [the professional actors]," he says at another. It's almost as if he's a guy in film school showing his homework and asking for feedback in order to improve. It's not often you hear such an unassertive director's commentary, but it's definitely somewhat refreshing.

The only other feature is Deleted Scenes, which is neatly assembled as one playful montage of unused scenes. It's the benefit of shooting improv-style: there's plenty of leftover material that can be re-appropriated in different ways.

"Alexander the Last" is on sale February 23, 2010 and is rated NR. Drama. Written and directed by Joe Swanberg. Starring Jess Weixler, Justin Rice, Barlow Jacobs, Amy Seimetz, Jane Adams, Josh Hamilton.

Mar
09
2010
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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