It's not for lack of trying. Swanberg builds a loose character setup within an ambitious background of reality and artifice. He asks us to consider when intimacy is true, when it is simply make-believe, and when the hell we should be able to tell the difference.
It's a logical proposition for the mumblecore style, where digital video and loosely structured dialogue convey their own reel reality. Of course, it just feels real, and here Swanberg demands a deeper interpretation from both us and his characters. Intended or not, John Cassavetes' films posed those same questions -- with a similar style -- and the connection is impossible to ignore.
The reality of Alexander the Last focuses on actress Alex (Jess Weixler, Teeth), her husband Elliot (actor/musician Justin Rice, Mutual Appreciation) and Alex's sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz, Wristcutters). The film's artificial universe exists in Alex's on-stage world, where she's preparing -- endlessly it seems -- for a steamy lovemaking scene with Jamie (Barlow Jacobs, Shotgun Stories), who's sleeping with Hellen in the real world.
So while Alex and Jamie rehearse the choreography of rolling around and removing clothes on stage (with the great Jane Adams as the director), we also spy Hellen and Jamie getting it on for real. Swanberg cuts abruptly between the scenes, forcing the question: Has Swanberg blocked the "real" sex scene as carefully as the "fake" one is being staged for the play?
The art, the reality -- and the art of reality -- all intertwine. What's missing is a bit of accessibility to the characters, who seem a little too wrapped up in the quiet, slacker tempo that's become a mumblecore signature. The acting does the film justice -- Weixler is just great, a combination of maturity and vulnerability she wears naturally -- but Swanberg should give us something to grab on to earlier in the film, and hold our sympathy for the distance.
He did it with outstanding skill in Nights and Weekends (with co-director/star Greta Gerwig), and it would help here. When Elliot reads Poe to Alex, we can't take our eyes off Weixler's enamored look; the action, though, is an unnatural contradiction that annoys more than it entertains. (Maybe it's "The bells, the bells, the bells....")
The earlier Cassavetes reference brings to mind Opening Night, his study of a troubled stage actress played by his wife, Gena Rowlands. Like Cassavetes, as Swanberg and crew combine the worlds of real and staged action, they achieve something more vital: They expose characters' personal pains, ticks, fears -- and celebrations. When Alex proclaims she's having one of the great days of her life, we'd like to be there.
Bring out the Snuggies!
Run time: 72 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 14th March 2009
Distributed by: Film Science
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
Fresh: 8 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 5.0 / 10
Director: Joe Swanberg
Screenwriter: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Jess Weixler as Alex, Justin Rice as Eliott, Barlow Jacobs as Jamie
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