| Dir: Woody Allen
“If you want, we can go talk about our kindergarten that would give him the best chances of getting into an Ivy league school.”
Magic realism and the way it works itself into his work has been one of Allen’s most identifiable themes. Who can forget the scene with a young Allen in Stardust Memories, the out of body experiences in Annie Hall, the core of Magic in the Moonlight, the fantasy of The Purple Rose of Cairo, his mother transporting to the New York skyline after a magic trick gone wrong in Oedipus Wrecks?
Yet Allen’s most magical works, in the sense of their charm and theme, don’t need the supernatural frivolity on show during Alice. We’re presented with sometimes wistful flashbacks infiltrating the present, invisibility, a wise muse appearing when most needed, the power to make any man fall in love with you and more. But consider the romanticism of Annie Hall and Manhattan, the sentimentality of Purple Rose, the nostalgia of Radio Days and Sweet and Lowdown, the spectacle of Midnight in Paris, the unbelievable yet touching journey of Zelig. They achieve their status and aura from marrying genuine pathos with a sprinkle of cinematic magic. Alice instead gets straight into the magical conceit and imposes its conventions without any understanding of the context or background on the characters.
Titular upper-class housewife Alice begins questioning her 16 year marriage and her privileged lifestyle after developing feelings for a handsome saxophone player. Subconsciously suffering from a sore back, her troubles are truly emotional, even superficial. A Chinese acupuncturist prescribes a series of reality-altering herbal remedies to alleviate her troubles of dissatisfaction. These herbs lead not to bed rest but to supernatural adventures, unexpected personal insights and necessary confrontations with who she had become since her Catholic upbringing.
You might not be surprised to know that the film was originally titled ‘The Magical Herbs Of Dr Yang’, and thank goodness for that change. This fantasy and fantastical action, with both comic and dramatic overtones, brings inevitable comparisons to The Purple Rose of Cairo. In fact, there are very similar moments towards the end of both films when Farrow’s characters end up losing both men she loves by choosing the route of less reality. On both occasions there is a choice, yet her final choice here is one in herself rather than of either man. She devotes her life to Cambodia to give herself and her children deeper values after an adulthood of superficiality. It’s another blurring of reality in Allen’s work considering Farrow’s philanthropy, generous adoption of disadvantaged children and worshiping of Mother Teresa.
But at the core of the comparison comes the realisation that Alice does nothing better than its predecessor. It’s essentially the same to The Purple Rose of Cairo as Deconstructing Harry is to Hannah and Her Sisters – a breezier, messier, softer spoken and less potent reiteration. Allen’s script does have some lovely dialogue though – the lines “I try to look pretty so your friends can admire your taste”, “I hold onto my youth, but he doesn’t notice” and “Love is a very complex emotion. No rational thought…much romance, but much suffering” speak so piercingly from their quiet delivery.
However, coming off such success at displaying how his comedic and dramatic passions can coalesce, Alice never seems to find its tone or placement like Crimes and Misdemeanors. It has fun moments of wacky hijinx, affecting moments (all anchored by a sweet and heartfelt performance from Farrow, with one hilarious seduction scene) and existential detours into examinations of midlife malaise. But his whole idea never assembles the meaningful stakes, interesting sub-characters or engaging performances to hang it on.
Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.