Jarring turns of plot rattle otherwise charming 'Alice'

January 25, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Alice'

Starring Mia Farrow and Joe Mantegna.

Directed by Woody Allen.

Released by Orion.

Rated PG-13.

*** Woody Allen had 11 great ideas for his next movie but he didn't know which one to make.

So, in "Alice," he made all of them.

He made the movie about being invisible.

He made the movie that tweaked the comfortable pretensions of the haute urban bourgeoise.

He made the movie about the ghost.

He made the movie about the matron and her Chinese doctor.

He made the movie about the wife and her affair with a jazz musician.

He made the movie about the adulterous husband.

He made the movie about the rich woman who "found herself" in good works.

He made the movie about himself in drag.

He made the movie about the battling sisters and their reconciliation.

He made the movie about "Alice in Wonderland."

He made the movie about "Alice in Hell."

In fact, there are so many meals in "Alice's" restaurant that you can get anything you want.

Some of us silly geese who prefer our movies to be one thing from start to finish might have a little problem with this method. I know I'm one of them. So I'll just shut up. But if I shut up, what happens then? Who finishes the review?

Anyway . . . Alice -- Mia Farrow, in a performance that consciously replicates Allen's own high-pitched, neuroses-dense stream-of-consciousness, I-can't-stop-talking presence -- is the well-tended wife of New York stockbroker William Hurt, living what might be called the West Side lifestyle in excelcis. She's so comfortable she has time to be unhappy; in fact, unhappiness is her hobby. Kids in private school, hubby prosperous but dull, life pleasant but unchallenging, she's become essentially a professional shopper and career gossipist.

Allen, who knows New York style at least as well and possibly better than Tom Wolfe, is at his best in his effortlessly quick and sure creation of Alice's lifestyle, the perks that are the substance of her life, and the curiously naive vanities that are also the pillars of her worldview. But recently Alice has begun to have sexual fantasies about a musician (Joe Mantegna) who picks up his children at the private school at the same time she does.

At this point, the movie takes the first of its several jarring 90-degree turns. In quest of social correctness, she consults the newly fashionable Dr. Wang (the late Keye Luke) who promptly prescribes the herbal therapy that yanks the movie into the realm of magic. The herbs that Alice naively starts ingesting have liberating tendencies: Emboldened (literally transformed into some kind of red-hot jazz mama), she picks up on the musician, beginning an on-again, off-again courtship that is the one inconstant constant of the film.

Another of the herbs allows her the treat of invisibility.

And still another encourages the ghost of her first lover (Alec Baldwin) to return for a heart-to-heart, not because it's important to the movie but because, presumably, Baldwin was available for a few days work.

And still another urges her to reconciliation with her judgmental sister, Blythe Danner.

But the more fun Alice has, the unhappier she is and the ditzier the movie gets.

You sit there thinking, make up your mind!

Still, light and silly as it is, "Alice" is has its moments of sublime charm, as when Alice's love potion accidentally turns up in the Christmas eggnog and every man at the party throws himself at her ankles. Or when, invisible, she listens to her two "closest friends" dishing on her, and learns what she should have known all along about loyalties.

The ending is a cheat, and as the "other man," Mantegna's charms seem as vaporous as the morning dew in January -- non-existent. But Farrow is very funny in her imitation of her close personal friend Allen, and the movie is delightful if weightless.

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