Remember the scene in "Bringing Down the House" where Steve Martin dressed up in hip-hop clothes, went into a rap club, and acted all ghetto? Remember just how sad, embarrassing, and pitiful it was?
Rewind that feeling by a handful of decades and you get the poorly dated 1968 comedy "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!" This graceless time capsule finds Peter Sellers done up in full hippie garb, handing out copies of the "Free Press" on street corners, sucking down hash brownies, and saying such random things as "far out," "groovy," or "far out, that's groovy." It's a particularly lame spoof on hippie culture that's all the more disappointing because it stars Peter Sellers, who, it turns out, does not get to do a single funny thing here. (This is not for a lack of trying. But if even Peter Sellers cannot find a chuckle or two out of your material, it's time to get new material.)
Sellers stars as Harold Fine, a 35-year-old lawyer who decides to get married to the secretary (Joyce Van Patten) he's been sleeping with for a few years - not because he's in love, but because that'll get her to stop nagging him about it. He's a square in every sense of the word (how do we know he's uncool? His asthma kicks up after sex!), so when he's thrown into the flower power world of his dopey brother (David Arkin), he's rather annoyed. Then he meets free-wheeling Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young) and becomes so smitten that soon he's quit his 9 to 5 job, grown out his hair, and dropped out. Right on.
The film, written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker (the same team behind the following year's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice") and directed by Hy Averback ("Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?"), works best (if barely) in its earliest scenes, as an uptight Harold is forced to deal with a brother who has no concern for keeping up appearances. While the jokes are almost always very weak and uninspired, at least Sellers can finagle a few smiles out of the sight of his struggles. Once Nancy shows up, however, it's a long, fast slide downhill. The movie's caricatures of the hippie lifestyle aren't clever enough to work, and they play out merely as obnoxious and undercooked, with most of the jokes boiling down to "look, it's Peter Sellers with long hair!" or "look, it's Peter Sellers in a leather vest!" Meh.
(Other attempts at comedy include a scene involving hearse drivers on strike and a running gag featuring an Hispanic family in neck braces. This is why you should always let the buzz wear off before locking down that screenplay.)
And if there were still people out there thinking that the joke about old, square white folks accidentally getting high was ever funny, "Alice B. Toklas" proves them wrong. It's as awful here as it is in every pot comedy that followed it, only more so, considering how the scene (in which Harold, his mom, and her friends unknowingly eat some laced brownies) goes on for far, far, far too long. The scene devolves into a string of shots of actors saying "Mmmmmm!" over and over and over again, until you want to punch the screen, yelling at them to shut up.
The finale is worse, as it collapses into a mercilessly unenjoyable comic "happening," with a crowd of extras infesting Harold's apartment for a hash party. As Harold begins to trip and random characters come in and out of frame, we're stuck watching a seemingly endless mess that puts the finale from "Casino Royale" to shame.
Cap it all off with what may very well be one of the worst songs ever written for a motion picture. The tune, a sappy, dippy almost-song, consists entirely of four lines*:
I love you, Alice B. Toklas!
And so does Gertrude Stein!
I love you, Alice B. Toklas!
I'm going to change your name to mine!
Repeat this ad nauseam (heavy on the nauseam), toss in some flutes for good measure, give the whole thing to that buy-the-world-a-Coke choir on the hill, and stand back. The movie plays the song repeatedly throughout the ninety minute running time. You won't even last past the first time through.
A final note: If you were unaware that the title refers to "Alice B. Toklas brownies," a form of hash brownie popularized in the 60s thanks to a famous Toklas cookbook, you'll know all about it before the movie ends. The script clumsily refers to Toklas brownies repeatedly, thus ruining what might have been a clever insider gag. The filmmakers take numerous precautions not to put off Middle America, which not only dilutes any comic potential this movie may have once had, but also forces several jokes, including the title, to become so overplayed (thus assuring everybody "gets it") that they fall apart.
The film gets the full anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) treatment, although the image is notably soft throughout, and several shots feature a considerable amount of grain. This is a shame, considering how often the wild color scheme of the film could have popped and crackled if given the proper transfer.
The Dolby 1.0 mono track is just enough to get that theme song stuck in your head forever, but not enough to make an impression anywhere else. Also provided is a French mono track and optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.
Just an uninteresting, overlong, iffy-looking full screen trailer.
Unless you're heavily in the mood for some failed comedy from the late-60s, there's no reason to hunt this one down. It's an embarrassment in Sellers' career, one best forgotten and/or ignored. Skip It.
* Yes, there are other lyrics in the song. No, you will not notice any of them.