Synopsis: For 16 years, Alice Tate (Farrow) has been ignored by her husband (Hurt), spoiled by wealth and tranquilzed by boredom. But when she unexpectedly falls for sexy musician (Mantegna) and impulsively consults a mysterious Chinese herbalist for advice, Alice begins a madcap journey into a strange new world of possibilities. But as she begins to realize who she is and what she values, Alice must also confront her deepest fears and decide how far she’ll go for love…and what she’ll risk to change her destiny.
‘Alice’ is a comedy mixed with fantasy, romance and some minor social commentary. It’s the story of a rich, bored housewife who finds herself drawn into an extra-marital affair with the assistance of a Chinese health practioner. Torn between what she considers to be proper behaviour and the unexpected reawakening of her youthful passions, she revisits her values and rekindles with long-lost parts of her life.
Woody Allen was still on a bit of hot streak when he wrote and directed this masterful vehicle for then-partner Mia Farrow. It may even have been the best of their many collaborations, despite the supreme quality of most of them, and it features a remarkable performance by Farrow; Allen’s script totally tapped into her strengths and highlighted them in a way that he hadn’t done before.
Watching Farrow shift from a mousey, subdued homebody to a more giving, worldly character is pure pleasure; she manages to subtly transform her character with such credibility that we have no doubt of its plausibility. Along the way from point A to point B, she also has to go into a number of other modes. They fluctuate wildly, and yet she holds all the pieces together with grace and consummate skill (the scene in which she initially flirts with Joe Mantegna’s character is such a perfect example: she mixes confidence with inexperience with shyness with humour with suggestiveness. Wow).
Sadly, Joe Mantegna is a little out of his depth here. While he is and always has been a good actor, most of his scenes are with Farrow and he doesn’t quite hold up next to her powerhouse performance. Furthermore, his role demands a comic flair he seems to be lacking – his character is constantly reacting to Farrow’s and is the impetus of the humour in those scenes. Here, Mantegna tends to play them too large to be entirely realistic, and it spoils what should have been discreetly droll, turning these moments into something all too conventional.
As can be expected, William Hurt plays… William Hurt. He’s a likeable actor, but he doesn’t seem to do much onscreen – especially here, where he’s expected to play a detached, authoritative husband. Keye Luke, however, who plays Farrow’s gruff alternative medicine doctor, is one of the high points of this film; while he doesn’t need to emote or reach out of a limited range, his brusqueness and physical demeanour are so hilarious that he steals every scene he’s in. And since all of his scenes are with Mia Farrow, those moments are the strongest by far.
My only beef with the film is the usual one with regards to Woody Allen: it all revolves around adultery… again. I can’t think of many of his films that don’t incorporate some element of adultery in it and it makes one wonder what kind of world view he has – what his real life take on human relationships is. As someone who finds infidelity to be an extremely selfish, lowly destruction of loyalty and trust, I find this side of Allen’s work unpalatable; if it only happened a few times in his long career, it could be chalked up to being part of the long list of adult experiences. Except that it’s a recurring theme, time and time again.
Still, Woody Allen writes people well and often manages to imbue his scripts with depth, charm, wit and insights about the human condition. In ‘Alice’ he balances all of these elements exceptionally well, combines them with a great cast and a terrific pacing, bringing just the right kind of magic to the silver screen.