One day you’re a career 9-to-5er with a pending marriage. The next, you chuck it all for beads, bell-bottoms and free love. That’s how things are for Harold Fine, a dedicated lawyer about to become a more dedicated dropout.
Like the brownies served by Harold’s new girlfriend, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas has a hidden magical ingredient: Peter Sellers, whose flower-power performance here is in the same league as Dr. Strangelove, Inspector Clouseau and other “best Sellers.” Director Paul Mazursky and his co-writer Larry Tucker spread good vibes aplenty as Harold discovers tuning in and turning on can turn out daffily disastrous. Leigh Taylor-Young and Jo Van Fleet co-star in this Age-of-Aquarius time capsule that’s timeless fun.
eyelights: the concept. Peter Sellers. the cute girl.
eyesores: its ambiguous message.
“I’m probably the hippest guy around here. I’m so hip, it hurts!”
‘I Love You, Alice B. Toklas’ is a 1968 movie that I saw for the first and (I believe) only time some 15 years ago, when I first started to trip out on Peter Sellers. I had seen a copy of the video tape in Video Mondo, a local rental store, and it seemed amusing enough – plus I had never seen this title anywhere else. One of my best friends was also a budding fan, so we made a point of getting our hands on it ASAP.
Sadly, we weren’t exactly blown away with it: it wasn’t exactly madcap in the way we liked Sellers’ films to be. And so it got shelved semi-indefinitely, even though we had made a copy of it.
But a part of me was always interested in giving it another chance. I wasn’t exactly in the mood to pop the VHS tape into the player, but if I’d seen the DVD for a decent price, I would certainly have picked it up. Through the years, I ended up getting just about every other Peter Sellers DVD I could find, but I have never seen this title anywhere else except in that video store so many years ago.
I lament the disappearance of video stores. While you can find a lot of stuff online, there was something precious about going into a shop, browsing its shelves, and discovering gems you wouldn’t otherwise find anywhere else. Every visit could be a eye-opener – especially if you were fortunate enough to find a local shop that carried indie and international cinema – not just the blockbusters.
Plus which a tactile experience it very different from a virtual one.
‘I Love You, Alice B. Toklas’ is the story of Harold, a stuffy Jewish attorney who begins to explore the hippie counter-culture movement after a series of incidents makes him realize that it could liberate him from the fears that have ruled his life all these years. At first averse to the notion, it takes a batch of pot brownies to open up his mind and allow him to consider an alternative lifestyle.
The title comes from this very batch of brownies, in a nod to ‘The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book’ and its extremely popular recipe for Hashish Fudge. Here, however, it’s brownies, not fudge. The goodies are baked by Harold’s brother’s girlfriend, Nancy, after she crashes at his place one night. Unsuspectingly, Harold, his fiancé, and his parents eat the brownies the following night. losing their inhibitions.
There’s not much to the movie, truth be told. It’s a linear exploration of the change in Harold’s character, from the proper adult he was raised to be (in contrast to his brother Herbie who, much their mother’s chagrin, is a total hippie) to a long-haired peacenik who lives in his car with Nancy. Basically, the point is to explore the impact this change has on his life and those of the people in his life.
It all comes to a head after he returns home and the place is taken over by Nancy’s hippie friends. At this point we realize that, for all his newly-found pretensions, Harold really does want to live a more traditional lifestyle: he wants Nancy to remain monogamous, and he wants to keep his luxury apartment to himself. In short: he wants maintain boundaries that are counter to the counter-culture.
Or does he? Can he return to his old life after all of this?
I really like this question, but I wish that ‘I Love You, Alice B. Toklas’ explored it further. It does to a certain extent, but then it abruptly does a 180 in the last few minutes, leaving us unsure of what the filmmakers were trying to tell us. There are also discussions about the roles of men and women in relationships, which could have been interesting if we only knew if it was meant to be serious or satirical.
Honestly, the only reason to see the movie is for Peter Sellers, really. Otherwise, this is an unexceptional picture that was somewhat poorly-conceived: it awkwardly traipses into slapsticky comedy, it’s edited badly, and it’s ambiguous about its message and intention. And even with Sellers, who sports an unstable accent, it’s no great catch. I could easily see Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin or any other comedian play the part.
And yet, although it’s no masterpiece, I enjoyed revisiting ‘I Love You, Alice B. Toklas’. And I likely will again: it’s certainly not a bad film, even as it’s not a particularly exciting or engaging comedy. If anything, I will likely go back to it in moments when I feel nostalgic for the long-lost local video store. I likely wouldn’t have discovered this, probably never would have heard of it, even, if video stores hadn’t been around.
It’s a real shame that they’re disappearing from our lives now, seemingly forever.
Date of viewing: September 6, 2014