Those who viewed Woody Allen's recent work Wonder Wheel might have been met with dissatisfaction at the director's cumbersome, yet lackadaisical handling of its ideas, spanning from crumbling marriages and secret affairs to a domestic woman's desire for more rewarding activities in her life. While many of these are themes touched upon in several of Allen's other works, one can find a much more reputable and engaging distillment of em in one of his earlier, often overlooked pieces of work from the 90s, Alice. While viewers who are sensitive magical powers being implemented in convenient ways might be a little put off by this whimsical drama, those who aren't will find a slight yet meaningful exploration of breaking inhibitions, infidelity, and rediscovering meaning in a largely domesticized existence, led by a delicately responsive turn from Mia Farrow.
Farrow plays Alice, the wife to a wealthy businessman (Willian Hurt). To say that she leads a comfortable life would be an understatement: she and her husband occupy a sprawling Manhattan apartment, have servants to take care of their children and errands, and can afford for Alice to not work and just go to stylists and masseuses on alternating days. On recommendations from her friends after complaining about a backache, Alice visits a Chinese acupuncturist, who after an initial assessment -- involving some personal questions about her home life and marriage -- prescribes her some powerful Chinese herbs. Immediately, she feels the effects, sending her out into the city with a slightly altered outlook on how she interacts with other people, emerging in her flirtatious conversations with a musician, Joe (Joe Mantegna). As she continues to see the Chinese doctor, Alice receives new herbs that have peculiar impacts on her life, putting her in situations outside her comfort zone and requiring her to evaluate her happiness.
A hurdle must be crossed to appreciate Alice on a meaningful level, and that's to accept the incredible amount of privilege bestowed upon the main character, embracing her first-world dissatisfaction with the trajectory that her life has taken. Of course, people of all social classes can come face-to-face with dissatisfaction in how one's life turned out, yet there's something particularly frivolous about Alice's grasp on the situation, since she has little understanding of the resources and safety net involved with her marriage. She has the availability and freedom to do anything she wants, really, yet she needs to go to a holistic Chinese doctor and be pumped full of questionable substances to finally spark her into action and follow her uh, passions. Thus, Alice doesn't effortlessly earn one's sympathy in the same way that, say, an oyster-serving waitress in 50s Coney Island might. She's submissive and dependent, and not in a compelling way like her character in Rosemary's Baby.
Woody Allen uses that weakness to his advantage by thrusting her into scenarios far outside her comfort zone, with the assistance of an onslaught of Chinese herbs. There's no ambiguity involved with their medicinal functionality or the playful allusions to Alice in Wonderland, as the concoctions of Dr. Yang lend her genuine other-worldly powers of varying degrees, drenching Allen's film in clear mysticism. While they begin with small tweaks to her confidence levels, they eventually branch out into more overt enchantments that grant her the powers to secretly observe, commune with spirits representing past loves (Alec Baldwin) and creative ambitions (Bernadette Peters), and point-blank control the affections of others, carefully determined by the "herbs" for precise effects and longevity. Echoes of the sleep-state conversations from Annie Hall and the reality-twisting whimsy of The Purple Rose of Cairo pour into Alice's erratic decisions and encounters, but Allen manages to keep her activities as grounded in reality as he can, using her magical excursions as ways of encouraging her to well, live a little, which balances meaning with contrivance.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Alice comes in the personality of the lead character herself, or, more specifically, the absence or restraint placed on her personality and the persistent changes she endures because of her newly-discovered doctor. A recurring staple of many of Woody Allen's films, Mia Farrow handles that kind of reticence well, conveying repression and insecurity in how she communicates with others. Here's the thing: she's almost immediately tinkered with by hypnosis and subsequent medications, which hijack the character's inherent traits as she considers having an affair and muses about being a screenwriter. Through this, it's difficult to gain a grasp on who Alice really is and that seems like the crux of Allen's intentions, since she's rediscovering herself and exploring what brings her pleasure and disappointment. A clear-cut personality for Alice gets lost in all the shifts, and while Farrow brings delicate spunk to her at necessary intervals, her lack of individuality obscures the story's more deeply-felt points.
There's playfulness and panache in Alice, to be sure, especially in the moments where Woody Allen dabbles in the more out-there magic activated by the Chinese herbs, but the script yearns for its premise of personal rediscovery to be taken seriously. This results in an unusual conflict of tones as Alice's escapades through infidelity and identity reach their ends, especially once emphasis gets placed on the character's emerging confidence and clarity toward the individual she wants to be. In a way, Allen takes it easy on her evolution by forcing her to have less of a choice in how she's able to handle her marriage, largely because the follies of the men in her life default to predictable stereotypes that almost make the decision for her. Luckily, Allen keeps one last trick up his sleeve -- or, more accurately, one last dose of medicine -- that brings Alice to a clear point of strength and agency following her turmoil, resulting in an inspiring, admirable, if mildly unearned note about breaking free.
Video and Audio:
Twilight Time furthers their reputation as a boutique label with a beautiful transfer for Alice, which has been accurately framed at 1.85:1 through a 1080p AVC transfer. Much of Woody Allen's film takes place indoors in an inviting apartment, a fairly dim holistic doctor's room, and other places like restaurants and business offices, which shift from warmer tones to cooler ones depending on the lighting. Under a veil of delicate, natural film grain and with capable black levels preserving details in shadows, the transfer capably navigates the fluctuations in visibility and skin tone warmth, emphasizing close-ups on Mia Farrow that impressively capture the depth and intended colors of the image, including vibrant reds that are immaculately saturated. Details don't receive much emphasis throughout the photography, but typical fineness in faces and clothes are crisp enough without being impressive, while elements such as ghostly transparency and water cascading down a window move fluidly, hold onto their details, and are free of distortion. There are a few instances of very mild edge halos during heavier contrast scenes, but that seems inherent in the photography, which looks rather good in Twilight Time's high-def transfer.
Allen's films are always focused on delivering the dialogue and little beyond that, but the sound design of Alice also relies on the buoyancy of orchestral music to carry it along. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track handles its necessary roles quite well. Verbal delivery remains sharp yet responsive to the intended atmosphere of the scenes, expressing fine midrange bass whenever necessary. The music ends up being the star of the show here, though, with the nuances of the orchestral highpoints ringing crisp and clean. Front-channel separation isn't terribly discernible, but a few instances of dialogue where people move around a room allow fluid movement of the sounds across those points, while a few mild effects capturing New York's atmosphere -- a circus, a diner, rainy streets, etc. -- linger in the back of the front channels. Alice sounds quite nice for its intentions. English subs are available.
Unsurprisingly, the Twilight Time Blu-ray is fairly light on extras, including only an Isolated Music and Effects Track and a Theatrical Trailer.
There's something inherently likable about how Mia Farrow embodies the transformation of Alice, how the actress guides Woody Allen's character into romantic and creative endeavors outside her comfort zone, both on her own steam and with the assistance of certain ... uh, potions concocted by a Chinese herbalist. The overt mysticism of the scenario and the upper-crust dissatisfaction with one's life result in an oddly-toned concoction, though, where the reliance of magic potency clouds the more honest tale of personal growth surrounding the well-to-do housewife exploring into her not-so-whimsical Wonderland. While a lesser installment in Woody Allen's body of work, it's a better film than the similarly-themed Wonder Wheel and a great alternative, and Twilight Time's Blu-ray looks and sounds great. Mildly Recommended.