Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
★★ / ★★★★
Not wanting to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, Arlo (Arlo Guthrie) decides to attend university. His enrollment does not last long, however, after he gets into a brawl in an eatery. His unconventional appearance and approaches do not fit into the image of the school anyway so he is kicked out. Arlo moves to a town in Massachusetts to see his friends Alice (Patricia Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick) who have just moved into a deconsecrated church. The couple allows fellow hippies to stay there and soon enough an unorthodox community begins to form.
Inspired by Arlo Guthrie’s song and based on the screenplay by Venable Herndon and Arthur Penn, “Alice’s Restaurant” works as a series of amusing and random sketches because it focuses on a specific counterculture, but it quickly falls apart when it turns serious and attempts to wring out sadness from the audience.
Because of its freewheeling style, the colorful moments pop out even more strongly. What are considered to be “throwaway scenes” in pictures that have a defined narrative structure somehow manage to complement each other here because each character is slightly left of center. One of the scenes that stands out involves a purported seventeen-year-old girl who invites Arlo into her resting area because she seems to have a habit of sleeping with men who might become successful artists in the near future. Arlo shows reluctance to go on and claims that he does not want to catch her cold. The next scene is just as pointless and interesting.
I was most curious about Shelley (Michael McClanathan), an ex-heroin addict who comes to live in the commune. The ticks in his limbs and the sadness in his eyes drew me in; if there is one strand that requires an appropriate dosage of darkness, it is Shelley’s story. The threat of him going back to his old habits feels real. Shelley does not speak very often, especially about his drug history, but it is obvious that he is need of a friend. Unfortunately, his plight is diluted by the relationship troubles between Alice and Ray.
The fights they have are confusing at times because it feels like there is a missing scene or two that may hint at the reason why they are angry or frustrated with one another. I guess since they live together, fighting is natural. Still, it feels too broad. From the looks on the actors’ faces, their characters’ unhappiness hints at something more specific. As a result, when the couple argues and Shelley is in the background, it is best to block out the nonsensical dialogue and observe how Shelley is reacting to the confrontation.
Directed by Arthur Penn, perhaps the most important component that makes “Alice’s Restaurant” sort of work is the casting of Guthrie as himself. Because the events are more or less based upon his own experiences, he provides a certain relaxed atmosphere every time he is in a frame. His character is so at ease about everything, even when he gets in trouble with the law. I guess I liked watching him because I wanted to know more about his nature.