Alice (1990)

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Alice is another film about an affair, but at least this time the titular character is at least reluctant to get involved with another man.  Alice (Mia Farrow) is fueled by good old Catholic guilt.  It’s the main reason she won’t leave her husband, Doug (William Hurt), even though he’s like a venus fly trap, having slowly boxed her into a lifestyle she cannot stand and yet participates in all the same.

Doug is rich, and Alice is the one who runs the household, more or less.  They live in a big Manhattan apartment, and Alice spends her time with other wives, getting the hair done and gossiping.  So despite all the pampering, Alice is unhappy, but she’s afraid to admit it.

She gave up a career in fashion and theatre (if I remember correctly) to marry Doug, and she’s looking to find herself again, both in work and in love.  This movie reminds me of Frances Ha (2012), in which Greta Gerwig plays a young woman in New York trying to figure herself out.

While I love France Ha, I understand a lot of people find it self-indulgent, and that’s how I felt about parts of Alice.

Alice is drawn to Joe (Joe Mantegna), another parents at her kid’s school.  Already riddle with guilt at just the thought of looking at another man, Alice doesn’t take any action towards the potential affair.  Instead she goes to Dr. Yang, a nontraditional doctor, to help her ailing back.  He tells her it’s not her back that bothers her, but instead it’s something in her head and her heart.  He then proceeds, throughout the story, to give Alice a variety of herbs to help her in this journey of self-discovery.  Dr. Yang never leads Alice down a path she doesn’t already want to go on, instead he gives her drugs, basically, that will allow her to investigate what it is that is on her mind: Joe.

He gives her a potion that makes her say what’s on her mind to Joe with no inhibitions.  She is remarkably forward with him and suggests they meet up the next day.  After the potion wears off, however, she returns to her shell and stands him up.

Then Dr. Yang gives her something to drink that makes her invisible so she can spy on Joe and see if he’s someone worth getting involved with.  Alice is very thorough and wants to do her research.  Of course, after seeing that Joe still occasionally sleeps with his ex-wife, Alice thinks she wants nothing to do with him.  In reality she’s just trying to convince herself to stay away because that will make her life easier.

In another sequence, Alice is given an herb that allows her to see the ghost of her dead ex-boyfriend Ed (played by Alec Baldwin).  Ed is a reminder of what love used to feel like, and Ed, noticing how unhappy Alice is in her large apartment, remarks “trouble in paradise?”  Ed urges her to pursue Joe, and he’s basically the devil (or angel) on her shoulder.

So Alice and Joe get closer, and then they finally sleep together.  She suspects Doug of having an affair, so she takes the invisibility herb to follow him until she can prove that, yes, he is indeed sleeping around.  She uses this as the reason to leave him, despite his protests.

Alice tells Joe they’re in the clear in a shot framed against a mural of a beach and a palm tree, in other words paradise.  But that’s when Joe tells her he used the invisibility herb (that Alice shared with him) and spied on his wife’s therapy session, learning that she still loves him.  Joe tells Alice he has to try to work things out with his wife.  So Alice is left alone, for the first time in at least 16 years (before she met Doug).

Returning to Dr. Yang for the last time (before he leaves to travel back home), she gets one final herb: a love potion.  He tells her it will make the person who drinks it fall madly in love with her.  She clarifies if it’s for Joe, but Dr. Yang says it can also be for Doug if that’s what she desires.  After all, she did love Doug once.

Then at a party, Alice leaves the herb out and its mistaken for an ingredient in the egg nog.  She leaves the party when every single man there propositions her, having drunk the love potion.

Alice tells Doug that she is still moving out, and Doug expresses doubt that she can survive without all the luxuries his lifestyle has afforded her.  She says none of that stuff matters, and she decides to go to Calcutta to help Mother Teresa.  Again, Alice has deep Catholic roots.

She does this, and we learn through her former friends’ gossiping that she has returned to New York, lives alone in a modest apartment, does volunteer work and raises her children alone.  It’s a happy ending, and Alice is clearly happy, but her friends cannot fathom how she is able or willing to do this.

This film feels very playful.  The story is not that complicated, and it feels a bit like a fairy tale.  Between the drugs, invisibility, love potion, a ghost, flying over the city with said ghost, it just feels like an adult fairy tale.  Hell, Alice is named Alice and looks like Alice from Alice in Wonderland.  Many children’s stories/fairy tales seem to take that form, of an innocent-ish character trapped in a society that’s so clearly wrong for them and for everyone involved.  We don’t empathize with Doug or her gossiping friends just like we don’t empathize with the Dursleys in Harry Potter.

Alice needs to get out, and she needs a little help.  That’s where Dr. Yang comes in.  He drives the story forward, because Alice is so reluctant to do anything about her unhappiness and he allows her the freedom to make the decisions she needs to make.

In the end, not ending up with Joe serves to show how important the internal journey is.  It was never about Joe or the relationship, it was about her opening up and taking control of her own life.

Alice’s headband feels like an important symbol in the story.  She wears it a lot, and it makes her look like a Catholic school girl, always under the watchful eye of teachers and of God.  She’s reserved and not very expressive.  By the end she lets her hair hang down, and she looks like the Mia Farrow of many other Woody Allen films.

I don’t have much else to say about this, I suppose.  It felt a little slow at times, and I think that’s because it didn’t seem like there were any real stakes.  The story floats along, which makes sense as an adult fairy tale, but this immediately follows Crimes and Misdemeanors in which a man’s affair leads him to help commit murder.  So many of Allen’s films deal with affairs, and yet this one feels the least consequential.  It seems like it should have preceded Crimes and Misdemeanors, but there’s really no rhyme or reason to these films.

This film is near the end of Allen’s and Farrow’s relationship, though there is no indication of the imminent end here.  There’s no real point in investigating their personal lives, but maybe the prominence of marital affairs in his movies sheds light on his casual view of them.  I don’t know, I’m recklessly speculating.

Up Next: Shadows and Fog (1991), Husbands and Wives (1992), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

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