Alice (1990)

Director: Woody Allen


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the world that is independent cinema, Woody Allen has his own peculiar place. Neither controversial in his subject choices, nor graphically violent, esoteric, or revolutionary, his only seeming reason for being outside the Hollywood establishment is his insistence on living and working in New York. Unlike his fellow New Yorker, Martin Scorsese, Allen’s focus on a fairly circumscribed set of New Yorkers—primarily the rich and famous—has not led to any great human insights. Allen is a comic, of course, and one does not expect the types of catharsis from a comedy that one does from a drama. Yet, the one-dimensionality of Allen’s characters and concerns, far from showing us what NOT to be, lull us into believing that his fatuous band of neurotics are somehow endearing and, well, so like us.

In his tribute to Alice in Wonderland, Allen again casts his woman of the moment—in this instance, Mia Farrow—as Alice Tate, a simple Catholic married to psychiatrist Doug Tate (William Hurt), a member of a fabulously wealthy, high-society family of New York. When we first meet Alice, she’s bustling about her luxury apartment as though she really had something important to do. We are made to envy and perhaps sympathize a bit with her panic over whether to pick the children up from school herself or have the maid do it, the types of skin creams she is using, whether she’ll keep her personal trainer waiting, and other such privileges that the idle rich housewives who populate Woody’s World indulge to keep themselves in good trophy-wife condition. Of course, Alice isn’t young anymore. Her husband of 15 years treats her with absentminded indifference, though he has very strong opinions about keeping her from becoming anything more than she is. Alice is troubled with back pain, but her specialists can find nothing wrong. Obviously, her problem is her life, not her sacroliliac.

At a day spa, Alice meets her friend Nina (Robin Bartlett), who is never happier than when dishing on the affairs of their friends. Alice confesses that she is attracted to a divorced father she sees at her children’s school. Nina is hoping for something really juicy, but the religious Alice has only sinned in her heart. Then Alice asks Nina’s advice about her back pain, and Nina recommends an acupuncturist/herbalist named Dr. Yang (Keye Luke, in his last role). After Alice receives two more recommendations about the good doctor and his miracle cures (“He cleared up her vaginal tumors practically overnight.”), she visits his office in a rundown building in Chinatown whose walls she avoids touching with prissy distaste. Naturally, the wise Dr. Yang diagnoses the problem as in her head and her heart. He gives her a packet of herbs. Later, at a couture shop, she has a glass of water brought to her, dumps the herbs in, mixes them just so, and drinks them down.


Alice goes to retrieve her children from school. While she is seated, waiting for them to be brought to her, the man of her fantasies sits next to her. His name is Joe (Joe Mantegna) and he is a jazz musician. Alice suddenly becomes very seductive. “Tenor sax?” she asks. “Why yes,” says Joe. “What number reed do you use?” Alice continues to chat in this intimate manner and eventually makes a date to meet him the next day at the penguin house at the zoo. Before leaving, she says, “When I first heard Coltrane blow soprano, it opened up a whole new world of harmonics for me.” Later, Alice can’t believe what she said. “I hate jazz!” she exclaims.

With the help of Dr. Yang’s rare and wonderful herbs, Alice embarks on a journey of discovery. She revisits her first Ebenezer-Scrooge-like moment of compromise when she rejected a loving suitor (Alec Baldwin) to gain security, uncovers the reasons for her passionless marriage, and explores her creative side with the help of her Muse (hilariously played by Bernadette Peters). She embarks on an affair with Joe and has a chance to hear her idol, Mother Theresa; she brings her children to the lecture because she fears that she is not teaching them the proper values. She also ends up reconciling with her sister Dorothy (Blythe Danner), who has stayed true to her more proletarian roots and was always able to see their parents for who they were, not the idealized images Alice has preserved. In the end, Alice comes to know herself better and reach for the things she really wants out of life.

There is a lot to like in Alice, particularly the actors who breathe life into this fable. Mia Farrow is, of course, playing Woody Allen’s idealized vision of who he thinks she is; this is something he always does to his paramours/leading ladies. Yet Farrow brings a particularity to Alice’s timidity and a genuine poignancy to her feelings that her husband loved her once but does no more. I wouldn’t have thought he ever loved her—she just seems like good wife material—but Farrow made me believe it up until the point where she doesn’t believe it herself. The moment is a painful one.

Keye Luke as Dr. Yang takes a close-to-offensive caricature (indeed, when Alice walks into his office and joins a den of opium smokers, I couldn’t believe Allen thought that was a good idea) and brings a doctorly certainty to his ministrations. Robin Bartlett is a spot-on shrew whose grapevine I’d definitely want to listen to. Small roles are memorably filled by the wonderful Judy Davis as Joe’s ex-wife, Julie Kavner as Alice’s interior decorator, and Gwen Verdon as Alice’s mother.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the wit and sparkle of such classic 1930s comedies about the spoiled rich as My Man Godfrey and Holiday that Allen clearly is trying to emulate. The attempts at humor are pretty bad. For example, when Alice’s mother tries to explain her alcoholism, she is given the rotten line: “I couldn’t help it darling. You know I couldn’t resist the taste of salt around the rim of a glass.” Putting most of the women in red, black, and white—the “in” colors in New York fashion that year (oh yes, I remember!)—and having Alice wear nothing but those colors when out of the house isn’t really a witty way to say these women are sheep. It’s not even visually interesting. Allen continues with his creepy voyeurism on screen by allowing Joe to drink some of Alice’s invisibility potion and spy on a supermodel in a dressing room and his ex-wife at her psychiatrist’s. Allen’s script doesn’t rise about the level of a safe and solid Broadway show by Neil Simon—so tepid, so condescending, so New York.

I used to love Woody Allen’s films when I was younger and knew less about life; as I’ve grown older, their appeal has faded badly. Alice is one film I can still enjoy, but it only reaffirms for me that Allen is a filmmaker who missed his chance. He was made for mainstream Hollywood.

  • Forgetmenot spoke:
    6th/10/2010 to 10:08 pm

    I DID adore Mia Farrow in this movie, she was just so very cute and charming. I’m desperately searching for screencaps from this movie, could you please tell me where did you find those?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/10/2010 to 10:18 pm

    I usually get them from a Google image search. You might try that, or go to IMDb and look in the photographs link on the movie’s page. Thanks for stopping by.

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