Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hopefully Woody Allen will be remembered for his films and not his personal problems. I know
people who once laughed themselves silly over his 'naughty' sex jokes, who now consider them evidence of some
deep moral sickness. Allen was recently quoted as saying something to the effect that he made
his films really only for himself, and after he's gone he doesn't care what becomes of them. Well,
we like them, Woody, even if you insist on being unsentimental ...
Alice arrived in 1990 and made one of the smallest splashes of any Allen film outside of his
Bergmanesque dramatic shows. Accompanied by one of the shortest (54 seconds) and most intriguing
trailers on record, the general audience declared it not very interesting just the same. Savant
Alice Tate (Mia Farrow) is the very wealthy but disenchanted wife of the aloof Doug
(William Hurt), who treats her with barely-disguised condescension. An affair with a musician,
Joe (Joe Mantegna) she meets while picking up her child from school, kindles anxieties and hopes.
But the real catalysts to her reawakening are the herbs and potions (and even opium) given her by
the mysterious Dr. Yang (Keye Luke). They change her personality, bring on memories of her
childhood and early lover, and even allow her to become invisible so as to see the world as it
really is. The final herb is a love potion that will make whoever she gives it to fall madly
for her forever. But who to administer it to, her philandering Doug, or Joe, who wants to
return to his ex-wife?
Light, whimsical, and unimpressed with the idea of integrating its 'magic' elements in a rational
way, Alice is definitely a comedy, yet is also one of Allen's more serious attempts to
stretch his range, while enjoying a revisit to the styles of his favorite directors, Ingmar Bergman and
Federico Fellini. Dr. Yang's magic is a pretext to bring on deft memory moments ... Alice's
return to the ruined past is definitely Wild Strawberries in the way time bends to allow her to
talk with friends and family long gone.
Critics do have some ammunition to throw at Allen: the main characters, especially Alice and Joe, seem
to be parts of Allen's personality (Joe is even an aspiring concert musician making content with
playing at a lesser level), and of course, everyone talks at Allen's measured, stand-up pace ... even
their straight lines. Alice, when she gets nervous, is a female Woody, especially when being seduced
in a musician's loft apartment.
Savant thinks the success of Alice lies in this spoiled-but-questioning woman's ability to
see through her romantic unhappiness, to the problems with her lifestyle criticized by her outspoken
older sister (Blythe Danner). Catholic guilt stops being a fast punchline for Allen, as he
examines it more deeply. It's odd that Allen should be the one to proclaim so much good in
Alice's conversion, from a puppet wife spending money and dishing dirt with petty friends, into a
socially committed person.
In this he's aided immeasurably by Mia Farrow's winsome Alice, who always seems lost, but is never a
lost soul. Often wearing a little red hat, she reminds of that innocent little mouse character
in a series of old Warner Bros. cartoons. She bounces between a ghost lover (Alec Baldwin) who
takes her flying over NYC, and games played while under the influence of Dr. Yang's invisibility
potion. These remain resolutely Woody (stepping invisibly from a taxi, Joe says "Gee, nothing
shocks these New York cabdrivers!) but also have the power of Dickens ... would seeing the truth
of our loved ones really make a difference in our hearts?
Savant loves the scene that many thought was tossed off, the one where Alice's decision of who to
inflict Dr. Yang's final love potion, is pre-empted by a party accident that ends with her inundated
by a flood of hopped-up suitors. It may be a mechanical story device, to make Alice choose
for herself instead of force a man to love her, but Savant prefers to believe otherwise. Obtaining peace
of mind by commanding another's love has limits too, and nailing either Doug or Joe
to a commitment would just be another status quo prison ... Alice instead wants personal freedom,
from her limiting, controlling husband and the romantic demands of a lover. Woody Allen's Alice
is both charming and thoughtful.
MGM Home Video's DVD of Alice is a simple presentation of quality. The 16:9 image far
outstrips the previous full-frame laserdisc and VHS, especially in the darker scenes, which no
longer disappear into grainy murk. The music is punchy and Woody's preferred mono mix is just fine.
There's no commentary, and no docu, as Allen has contractual control over these elements and
prefers that his work stand by itself, without self-analysis or hype. So if you want to know
more about Woody, there are several good books in the library. The very short trailer is all
the frills ya get.
Savant edited an Orion ShoWest reel in 1990 that included a promo by Allen. It consisted of only
one shot of Allen in the corner of a soundstage, talking free-form about his 'new movie' (identified
only as 'new Woody Allen project') and making a few cute jokes about exhibitors while reading his cast
list from a crumpled piece of notebook paper. Our instructions were that the take had to be shown
without alteration, no cutting, no music, nothing - from camera stop to camera stop. So it began and
ended with white flashes! Such was the power of Mr. Allen. MGM still has several of these promos in
their library, but by contract can't show them: each was screened exactly once, at the ShoWest presentations!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 6, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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