Joe Swanberg makes movies about people struggling to remove the quotation marks around what they say. In Alexander The Last, making its DVD debut after an On Demand and festival run last year, Jess Weixler plays a young, married actress rehearsing for an intense play while her musician husband (Justin Rice) goes on tour. Obviously attracted to her co-star (Barlow Jacobs), a new arrival from Tennessee, she lets him bunk on her couch and begins flirting openly with him. But is she flirting or “flirting”? And when she kisses him while on a shopping trip with her disapproving sister (Amy Seimetz), is it just a kiss, or can she still cloak it under the guise of playfulness? Can there be any irony when tongue meets tongue?
Alexander The Last’s dealings with actors further complicate matters: They’re expected to simulate emotions, then turn them off when the curtain falls. Swanberg’s best-known previous film, Hannah Takes The Stairs, dropped a handheld camera in the middle of some Chicago twentysomethings still figuring out what kind of people they wanted to be, and just beginning to realize how much their choices could hurt those around them. Here, both filmmaker and characters have moved a little further along. Swanberg takes greater care with his compositions and the film’s construction; one elegantly edited sequence flits between the rehearsal for a lovemaking scene and its offstage corollary. His protagonists play for higher stakes, too. As Weixler steps up her teasing campaign and Jacobs begins to respond, the film takes on a sense of mounting dread. There’s more in the balance now than who goes home with whom at the end of the night.
Alexander stays tightly focused on Weixler’s character, a winning, reckless woman who might look contemptible from a little further away. (Weixler and other key actors get writing credits for their heavily improvised work.) Viewers get to know her well, and recognize the look of self-satisfaction she adopts when denying herself a pleasure she knows she’ll claim later on, and the way she offloads her frustrations with her own failings onto her sister. She’s mostly unpleasantly selfish behind her easily deployed smile, but too fragile and thoroughly realized to ignore. She’s frustrating, and the film can be as well, as when it pauses for a long, indulgent scene in which Weixler and Seimetz recite a lockstep monologue that lays out their relationship in the form of a fairy tale. But with film and protagonists, the frustrating tendencies are indivisible from what makes them memorable. Between too-long glances and careless mumbles, Swanberg slips in moments that can pivot lives in directions they don’t want to go.
Key features: Some deleted scenes introduced by Swanberg.