December 20, 2011
I don’t know if it’s possible to not be in love with Mia Farrow, but watching the 1990 Woody Allen film Alice is not the way to avoid it.
In this wonderful fantasy, written and directed by Allen, Farrow plays Alice Tate, the wife of wealthy businessman Doug Tate (William Hurt). Alice lives in a world in which her biggest concern is how to fit all the pampering she receives into her busy schedule. She and Doug have children, and Alice seems genuinely attached to them, but the kids spend most of their time with a nanny while Mom is with the personal trainer or the hair dresser or with her equally spoiled and gossipy lady friends.
Her routine is disrupted at her childrens’ private school when she meets and is attracted to Joe (Joe Mantegna), the divorced father of one of the other children. Shy and at least nominally Catholic, Alice suppresses her interest in Joe at least for a while. Right around this time, her usual hypochondria becomes focused on a chronic pain in her back, which drives her to consult an herbalist in a crummy building in Chinatown.
Dr. Yang, played in a marvelous performance by Keye Luke — his last role — understands immediately that there is nothing wrong with Alice’s back. He hypnotizes her and then introduces her to a series of herbs that have extraordinary effects on her, and eventually on Joe, including invisibility. Alice and Joe learn a great deal about themselves and about their spouses (ex-spouse, in Joe’s case). The result is a total change in both of their lives, although not in the way that might seem obvious.
Yang, who barks at any sign of self-indulgence in Alice and consistently refers to himself in the third person, is a unique and hilarious character.
As usual with Woody Allen, every character in this film is perfectly cast, including a brief turn by Bernadette Peters as a mystical “muse” who addresses Alice’s ambition to be a writer; Gwen Verdon as Alice’s memory of her mother; Blythe Danner as Alice’s somewhat estranged sister; and Alec Baldwin as the ghost of Alice’s first lover. Even the tiny role of an interior decorator is enhanced by Allen’s choice of Julie Kavner.
As for Farrow, she is simply irresistible.
The film is outstanding for its photography and for the writing, which got Allen an Oscar nomination.
Alice was loosely based on Juliet of the Spirits, a 1965 Italian movie directed by Federico Fellini, the first feature-length film he shot in color.