Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Check Please: "Alice's Restaurant" (1969)



A splash for the hippie movement when this was released in 1970, "Alice's Restaurant" is a sometimes interesting yet silly curio.

The plot is almost nonexistent. Arlo Guthrie plays himself, as he hooks up with old friends James Broderick (Matthew's dad) and Pat Quinn (Alice) in a small town in Massachusetts. Broderick and Quinn take in scores of teens and societal drop outs, giving them a place to stay and eat, and they ask for nothing in return. Their good faith is put to the test when heroin addict Michael McClanathan is released from Bellevue in New York City. He sleeps with Alice, and her relationship with her husband unravels. This subplot plays like a weak episode of "Days of Our Lives."

Guthrie has problems of his own, waiting for his famous father's inevitable death, and finally meeting the girl of his dreams. The melancholy ending, with Broderick and Quinn getting married again after a few characters' deaths, is supposed to mark a new beginning, but the final shot of Quinn standing alone on a deconsecrated church's steps lets us know otherwise.

Maybe hippie movies just ain't my bag. With all the pot smoking and free love, I just could not warm up to any of the characters here. Quinn has a meltdown in her restaurant when no one wants to help her. I could not help but feel she was throwing a tantrum on par with that of a toddler's, not suffering a nervous breakdown with accompanying mental trauma. Everyone is so over the top here, you may find yourself "suggesting" things to the characters- like getting a haircut and stop smoking the wacky weed.

Guthrie, on the other hand, proves acting is not his strong suit. He only seems to come alive during "The Alice's Restaurant Massacre" scene, as he sings about illegally dumping garbage, and the following police action. How this minor run-in with the law holds up his draft physical is hilarious, and I wish more of the film had been along these lines. Instead, director Penn shoots and edits in a haphazard way, resulting in haphazard interest from the viewer. Oddly enough, for being such a hippie youth film, director and cowriter Penn was almost fifty when he made this!

When Penn gets it right, he really gets it right. The final shot of Quinn is heartbreaking. He also has an incredible scene with a snowy funeral, and the comic timing of the song is perfect. Sadly, these great moments are just that- a few moments in a 111 minute film that feels twice as long. Eventually, the hoopla and praise has outlived a film that was very topical over thirty years ago, and very difficult today.

Skip "Alice's Restaurant," and eat in. (* *) out of five stars. Get this movie!: Alice's Restaurant