Mia Farrow never got her equivalent of an Annie Hall, although Alice comes the closest. Annie Hall was ostensibly a love-letter to Diane Keaton, although it ended up being more about Woody Allen. Alice, while it’s not the superior film, is at least wholly devoted to Mia Farrow. In fact, the film’s primary shortfall is that it assumes you are equally entranced by Mia Farrow.
Farrow’s filmic presence is something I’ve discussed frequently (and indecisively) before. In her first role, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, I excitedly anticipated the arrival of the warm, optimistic, sensitive persona that she’d made so iconic. When it arrived in Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo I enjoyed it, although throughout Hannah and her Sisters, September, Another Woman and Oedipus Wrecks, there seemed to be a creeping sense of guardedness and detachment, culminating in Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which she never seemed to be entirely there. With all of these movies, I should point out, her performances suited her character and the movie perfectly, although in a movie like Alice, which needs our empathy in order to work, her distance proves problematic.
Also hindering empathy is the nature of her character. In The Purple Rose of Cairo (still my favorite Farrow performance), it’s her plucky optimism in the face of strife that puts us in her corner. In Alice, Alice is an absurdly wealthy house-wife, who has little on her plate other than manicures, massages and watching her maids raise her children. She seems quite happy, but not as happy as she could be, and the movie asks us to emotionally invest in her journey of self-enrichment.
Or, rather, it does not ask the audience to emotionally invest, but seems to assume that, of course, we are already wholly invested. Alice is given no particular charisma or endearing personality traits — just wealth and malaise (typically an unsympathetic combination). Yet, with the exception of her callous husband, all the people in Alice’s life are entranced by her. Allen’s assumption is that we are as well.
Alice’s husband is played by William Hurt, who was coming off career-making (and award-winning) performances in Broadcast News, Children of a Lesser God and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He is, obviously, a wonderful actor, but he’s mostly wasted here as an unexciting villain. He’s incredibly (financially) successful, but often belittles Alice, and is only semi-supportive of her artistic ventures.
Alice seeks fulfillment through two means: romantically, with a divorced saxophone player named Joe (Joe Montegna) and spiritually, with Chinese herbalist Dr. Yang (Keye Luke — of Gremlins, Kung Fu, and 8 Charlie Chan movies). Dr. Yang, to the best of my recollection, is the first non-white character to have more than a single line in a Woody Allen movie, so it’s a little sad that he plays such a caricature. Luke can speak fluently and without an accent, yet in Alice he’s made to talk in Yoda-style broken English. His only purpose in the film is to help a rich white woman discover herself with his folksly wisdom and magic powers, making him sort of an Asian version of the magic negro.
Dr. Yang’s “magic” comes in the form of his herbs, which have many strange and inexplicable powers. Some herbs grant Farrow the ability to fly, others make her invisible. The fantasy aspect of the movie only surfaces sporadically, and it feels awkwardly out of place with the rest of the movie, although it is enjoyable from a purely comedic perspective. The way Allen mines humor from the absurd situations is reminiscent of his wacky comedies from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The best one involves a love potion Dr. Yang creates — Alice plans to give it to Joe, but it accidentally gets into a punch bowl at a party, and an entire house full of people fall obsessively in love with her.
Another moment, which is truly the film’s stand-out scene for me, involves Dr. Yang putting Alice under hypnosis and asking her to think back to when she first met her husband. Such flashbacks are extremely commonplace, but Allen finds a new spin on it. Rather than having the actors try to play younger versions of themselves (which usually comes across awkward and unconvincing), Farrow and Hurt simply appear as themselves, at their current age, in Dr. Yang’s office. Bits and pieces from her memory (such as a neon sign from an amusement park) float around, disjointed. The effect is that we feel like we’re watching a faded, half-remembered memory. As a cinematic device, it’s quite brilliant, and it’s surprising you don’t see it borrowed more often (or, ever, that I can think of).
Alice is ridiculously star-studded. In addition to Joe Montegna, William Hurt and Keye Luke, Cybill Shepard plays Alice’s friend, Blythe Danner is her sister, Bernadette Peters is her writing muse, and Alec Baldwin plays her ex-boyfriend. Baldwin’s character is dead, but visits Alice as a ghost. Baldwin was an a-list movie star and sex symbol at the time, so it’s sort of ironic that he’s invisible for most of his role, just providing a disembodied voice (although he does have a great voice). One of the film’s most peculiar moments features Baldwin, now semi-transparent, and Farrow flying over Manhattan.
Towards the end, the film conjures up an It’s a Wonderful Life-esque message about the phony trappings of over-comfort. Inspired by a documentary about Mother Theresa, and sick and tired of the infidelity and the pampering and the gossip, Alice decides she wants to be a missionary. Such a development is not exactly revolutionary, or even surprising, although it is effectively crowd-pleasing. It carries extra emotional weight knowing its real-life inspiration (Farrow herself has grown-up around wealth, but is now a famed activist and philanthropist). The worst part about this very welcome development is that it comes too late in the film — only about 20 minutes from the end. It would be nice to see this develop in more detail over more time; instead, the film is pre-occupied with the awkward (although funny) fantasy side-stories and a banal, unmemorable romance between Alice and Joe.
In the interest of thoroughness, I should point out that there are a number of familiar Woody Allen calling cards. There are a few of the usual themes — infidelity, family, writing. This is the third straight film (if you exclude the short Oedipus Wrecks) in which the film’s protagonist interacts with her memories. This is the third film in which Mia Farrow has a mother who’s a boozy, failed actress. Alice decides to become a writer, and comes up with a number of story ideas, all of which are ripped directly from her life — just like Holly in Hannah and her Sisters, Larry in Another Woman, and Alvy Singer in Annie Hall.
Alice is a movie with no shortage of clever moments, but it’s less than the sum of its parts — mainly because its parts are often pulling in opposite directions. It’s structured like it should be all about Alice/Farrow, and her journey to happiness. The problem is, it’s so distracted and jumbled that it forgets to make Alice into someone we care enough to take that journey with. Instead of falling in love with Farrow, we’re left with a performance and a character that mostly engender indifference.
- “The professor said I was very deep”
“Deep is exactly where he wants to put it.”
- “There’s nothing sexier than a lapsed Catholic.”
- This movie was Keye Luke’s last performance before his death.
- Cinematographer Carlos Di Palma makes his return after sitting out the last three movies.
- Judy Davis makes her first of five Woody Allen movie appearances as Joe’s ex-wife.
- The perpetually under-used Julie Kavner is under-used as a decorator with about fifteen seconds of screen-time.
- This movie earned Allen yet another Best Screenplay Oscar nomination. At this point, I think he basically just has a standing invitation for that honor.
- The title, combined with the more fantastical elements, suggest a certain homage to Alice in Wonderland.