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ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Alfred Lutter, Harvey Keitel, Diane Ladd, Jodie Foster, Vic Tayback, Valerie Curtin
Director: Martin Scorsese
Audio: English 2.0, French 2.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, matted widescreen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary, "Making-Of" featurette, trailer
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: August 17, 2004

"It's my life!  It's not some man's life that I'm going to help him out with!"

Film ****

Martin Scorsese is one of the finest directors of our generation.  His best films are emphatically American stories at heart, demonstrating existence in the suburbs and streets of our inner city milieus.  Scorsese's most memorable efforts have always centered upon the flawed characters of Americana, whether they be conflicted boxers, street-smart wiseguys, or even, as in the case of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), struggling housewives.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore represents one of Scorsese's early efforts and is a far cry from his more grandiose and lavish style as of late.  However, the film was also Scorsese's first true commercial success, alluding to the maverick stylizations and technical artistry of his films to come.  While today Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore tends to be forgotten in spirited discussions over highlights in Scorsese's film career, the film remains, in many ways, Scorsese's most heart-felt movie, a simple tale about simply ordinary people trying to get by as best they can in life.  There is little in the way of glamour and flashiness about this film, which perhaps makes it the most identifiable of all Scorsese's films for the common masses and a clear example of the type of personalized, character-driven filmmaking that exemplified 1970's American cinema.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore stars Ellen Burstyn, who prior to this film had just completed The Exorcist and had been given carte blanche by the Warner Bros. studio to choose her next film project.  As the women's liberation movement was in full blossom during this era, Burstyn opted for a screenplay in which the female lead was not simply another wife, mother, or whore.  She also hand-picked Martin Scorsese to be the director after screening Mean Streets.  Scorsese was just the sort of young and energetic director that she desired, and Burstyn was confident in his filmmaking abilities, despite his inexperience dealing with women's issues on-screen.  Her instincts and trust proved well-placed.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is told from a woman's point of view.  It unveils one woman's strive for personal happiness and independence as she emerges from the subservient role of obedient housewife, no longer content to live an "auxiliary" existence in the shadows of a man.  Instead, this woman, Alice Hyatt, slowly transforms into a self-reliant woman, one who rediscovers a meaningful sense of purpose and pride in her life.  The film is wry and frequently quite funny as it deconstructs working-class mannerisms and discovers the humor and satisfaction derived from even the most humble or blue-collar of occupations.

As the film opens, we meet Alice in her nondescript suburban home.  She is trapped in a dead-end marriage with an unloving, reticent husband.  One day, an unexpected but fateful accident leaves her a young widow and her son without a father.  With limited savings, no means of supporting herself, and her life suddenly thrown into disarray, Alice decides to return to Monterey, California, where she hopes to resume a former career as a singer.

Alice dusts off the family piano, and in a sweetly poignant scene, attempts to practice and sing, somewhat to her son's consternation.  For better or worse, she soon packs up the essential family belongings and gets rid of most everything else in an impromptu yard sale.  Then, Alice and her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) bid farewell to their friends and old acquaintances and strike out in the family station wagon.  They depart from their New Mexican neighborhood for the promised land of Monterey, where hopefully a better future awaits them.

Yet as with any long road trip, optimism and excitement eventually surrender to boredom of the monotonous, unchanging scenery (in this instance, the sun-scorched flatlands of the Mid-West).  Alice and Tommy soon resort to petty family bickering, portrayed in a realistic but sympathetically amusing manner.  The mother-child interactions during these long, hot hours in the station wagon are hysterical and absolutely priceless.  Anyone who has ever taken impatient children on an extended road trip can certainly empathize with Alice's fruitless attempts to deal with the whining of an antsy child bored out of his skull.

Thankfully, the road trip does end but not yet in Monterey.  With the money dwindling away, Alice stops over in Phoenix, Arizona where she seeks out transient employment as a pub singer.  She even meets a local charmer, Ben (Harvey Keitel), who is perhaps too good to be true, and for a while, life seems bright.  However, Alice's destiny does not rest in Phoenix, and in the end, she is forced to leave town with her son quickly and rather distressingly so.

Alice's dwindling hopes are soon grounded completely in reality by the time she gets to, well, not Phoenix, but Tucson this time.  She is no longer singing.  For her new gig, Alice becomes a waitress at Mel and Ruby's Cafe, a true madhouse of a diner.  In the company of two eccentric waitresses, the smart-alecky Flo (Diane Ladd) and the spaced-out biker chick Vera (Valerie Curtin), not to mention the eternally-exasperated Mel himself (Vic Tayback), Alice has her hands full maintaining her composure while trying to save up enough cash to make good on her promise to bring the family eventually to Monterey.

If being a waitress is typically this trying and chaotic, then we should all remember to tip generously.  These young ladies deserve much gratuity for putting up with the myriad crazy antics and fickle demands of customers, all the while smiling with unfathomable patience and endearing friendliness.

To add further spice into the soup, Alice meets a potential new beau, this time in the guise of hard-working but earnest rancher David (Kris Kristofferson).  He seems caring and attentive enough, even garnering the approval of Alice's restless and still-bored son.  Nonetheless, Alice, having had poor luck in her relationships of late, is understandably cautious about warming to David, despite his kindly ways.

Thus, Alice faces the age-old dilemmas of career or motherhood, independence or relationship.  Certainly, simply being a waitress is an honest living, but what of Alice's aspirations to become a singer again?  Furthermore, Alice's growing attachment to David, her developing friendships with the odd denizens of Mel's Diner, and even the desire to restore for some semblance of family stability for the sake of her son - all these factors serve complicate her life.  Will Alice ultimately be happier in Monterey, or is Tucson fairly good enough?  Where then does her heart truly lie?

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a tenderly human and small-scale film with interactions that feel just right and natural.  It may be unlike any other Scorsese offering, but with a delightfully funny bravura performance by Ellen Burstyn at its core, this is truly an enjoyable story from start to finish.  The film is poignant and bittersweet at times but always unwaveringly honest, an intimate portrayal of ordinary people living out their ordinary if occasionally remarkable lives.

Video ***

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is presented in a matted widescreen format preserving the film's original theatrical aspect ratio.  The picture quality is quite bright and colorful with only a mildly grainy texture.  The transfer is excellent, and the print itself looks fairly pristine.  This is undoubtedly the best presentation of this film thus far in any format.

Audio ***

The film is presented in serviceable two-channel monaural with either an English or French soundtrack.  And yes, Ellen Burstyn does all her own singing in this film.  She has a somewhat timid but sincere voice that fits the persona of a housewife just trying to eke out an honest living.  The Rogers & Hart tune "Where or When" is prominently featured on the film's soundtrack.

Features **

"Kiss my grits!"

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was the inspiration for the 1970's hit television show Alice.  You can hear more about the show and the film in the selected scene commentary (53 min.) with contributions from director Martin Scorsese and the film's stars.  Scorsese, known at this stage in his career primarily as a tough guy's director, relates how he went directly from Mean Streets to this film with its strongly feminine undercurrents.  He also describes some of his influences from Francis Ford Coppola to John Cassavetes.  Actually, most of the early comments are from Scorsese, while Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd generally take over afterwards.  Ladd focuses her comments on the humorous qualities of the diner scenes.  Kris Kristofferson only makes a few sparse comments.

Also on the disc is Second Chances (20 min.), a featurette about the making of the film.  This featurette is comprised of interviews with Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson and includes supplemental clips and production photos from the film.  The two stars discuss the era during which the film was made as well as the manner in which the script was green-lighted by Warner Bros. for production.  Burstyn also relates how she recruited Martin Scorsese to the project.  Coincidentally, Ellen Burstyn still looks gorgeous.

Lastly, there is a theatrical trailer for the film.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Diane Ladd's daughter, Laura Dern, appears as a young girl eating an ice cream cone in a scene near the end of the film.

Summary:

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore represents an unpolished, natural, and gritty slice-of-life style of filmmaking that has been out of vogue in America for decades.  Fortunately, the film has lost none of its charm over the years and features Ellen Burstyn's winsome and Oscar-winning performance as the determined Alice.  Fans of touching, character-driven drama should definitely check out this film!

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