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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mia Farrow, William Hurt, Joe Mantegna, Keye Luke, Alec Baldwin, Bernadette Peters
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  June 5, 2001

“Freedom is a frightening thought.”

Film **1/2

She may not bear much resemblance to the little girl Lewis Carroll made famous, but Alice is about to step through a looking glass of her own, and indeed, things are going to get curiouser and curiouser.

Played by Mia Farrow, Alice Tate is a woman living an empty existence.  Her world revolves around her posh New York apartment, hair salons, trainers, and shopping.   Her husband Doug (Hurt) is supportive financially, but not emotionally.  Life is not bad, but neither is it satisfying.

Two people begin to change her perceptions, though.  A handsome young sax player, Joe (Mantegna), whom she runs into at her child's school, and a well-recommended Chinese physician, Dr. Yang (Luke), who finds that the source of her pains are not physical, but emotional.

Woody Allen offers up a generous slice of fantasy in this comedy, with Dr. Yang as the resident fairy godfather.  Thanks to his herbs, Alice finds herself able to do, say, and learn things she never knew before.  One of his first potions makes her completely uninhibited.  What does she do under the influence?  She lays down a rather funny seduction scene on a bewildered Joe!

Another drink makes her invisible, though the effects seem to wear off at inopportune times.  In conclusion, however, Dr. Yang offers her the power over her own destiny, in which she makes a most satisfying choice, though not before one of the funniest party scenes in recent memory.

Alice has heart and a charming spirit of playfulness, but what it lacks is a real sense of connection.  Allen purposefully created characters that were shallow to comment on this whole style of living.  “They spend their days shopping and having lunches, and every now and then one of them will get into some kind of project with artists or writers or politicians,” he has said.   “But it's all quite superficial.”

It's a good point, and one not lost in the course of the film…but the downside is, almost two hours is a long time to spend in a world of such artificiality.  I never felt any genuine interest in the characters.  Alice's choice seemed unappealing to me, between the callous Doug whose natural response is to chuckle when she talks about doing something with her life, or Joe, who still has sex with his ex-wife in her office and lies about it.  For that matter, I couldn't really see why Joe was attracted to Alice…given the wild mood swings brought on by Dr. Yang's herbs, I would have imagined him running away screaming!

The cast members are all good…maybe too good in stripping their characters of their souls a little too completely.  Alice is searching for hers, which makes for the structure of the movie, and the irony is, just as she starts to become an interesting person, the film is over.

Woody Allen's distinct touches are present, from the wit in the dialogue to the natural fluidity of the camera work.   No stranger to blending fantasy into reality, he opens up a world of possibilities around his main character.  But for some reason, the magic gets a little lost in the translation.  I guess I'm feeling that so much more could have been done with Dr. Yang's potions.  Particularly the one for invisibility, though I admit, what Joe does with it in the movie is congruent with what I was thinking.

Consider Alice to be Allen's most Fellini-esque work.  It's a string of colorful scenes and funny ideas without a sound enough structure to build upon.   It will entertain, and even amuse, particularly for fans of the Woodman, but it won't find a sacred place amongst his best works.

Video ***1/2

The 80's seem to be a consistently problematic era for films on DVD, which is why I'm not entirely surprised that Alice, Allen's first film for the 1990's, looks better than some of his earlier ones.  This is a very bright, well-lit and colorful film that makes great use of art decoration, costume, and locations to make for an enjoyable viewing experience.  This anamorphic transfer from MGM/UA captures all of these images beautifully, with good contrast, natural looking colors and flesh tones, good detail and no marring by grain or compression evidence.  Even darker and more ethereal looking scenes come across with good integrity.  Overall, a very valiant effort.

Audio **

Woody Allen has confessed he doesn't like to take a lot of trouble with sound mixes for his films, which is why all of them are in simple mono presentations.  As per the norm, Alice sounds fine, but doesn't dazzle.  There are no problems with dialogue clarity, and the music comes through cleanly and sweetly.

Features *

Only a trailer.


Alice is a noble attempt at a comic fantasy from writer/director Woody Allen that just misses the mark slightly.  It's no waste of time for his fans, who will enjoy his distinct visual and scriptural touches and some fine performances led by Mia Farrow in the title role, but it won't inspire the kind of devotion that films like Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters have.