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A delightful return to the romantic-comedy territory that Woody Allen last explored in such classics as Annie Hall and Manhattan, Alice was also Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but departs from the earlier films in its embrace of out-and-out fantasy to the point where it becomes a contemporary fairytale.
Alice Tate (Mia Farrow) is trapped in a loveless marriage to Doug (William Hurt), to the point where a chance encounter with handsome jazz musician Joe (Joe Mantegna) leaves her hopelessly conflicted. Seeking treatment for backache from a Chinese acupuncturist (Keye Luke), she confesses her feelings under hypnosis and comes away with some ancient herbs that possess mysterious and even supernatural powers. But will they solve Alice s dilemmas, or merely make them even more complicated? And can she really throw away all Doug s material wealth purely for love?
Gliding effortlessly from reality to daydream and from memory to magic, while exploring the intricate and unfathomable unity of human bonds, Alice was described by the New York Times as hilarious and romantic, serious and exuberantly satiric .
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For the film Allen again casts Mia Farrow in the lead female (and title) role, and, as the film progresses (and Alice becomes imbued with supernatural powers) it becomes clear that the title is probably taken from Lewis Carroll's famous literary creation. Set in Allen's familiar territory of upmarket Manhattan, Alice is married to wealthy Doug (William Hurt) and is part of a society served by maids, in-house cooks and masseuses, and obsessed with all things natural ('They have no more free range chickens') and god-given ('We could talk about a kindergarten that would give him the best chance of getting into an Ivy League college'). The main thread of the story emerges as Alice, bored with her privileged way of life, on a whim visits a mysterious Chinese herbalist, Dr Yang (Keye Luke) for advice with a back problem. The hypnosis and various herbal remedies dished out by Dr Yang give Alice an amazing boost of self-confidence (together with having supernatural effects such as the ability of becoming invisible), thereby allowing Alice to finally initiate a potential affair with fellow parent, Joe Ruffalo (Joe Mantegna).
Whilst Alice has some great set-piece scenes and some trademark funny moments of dialogue, for me, these are relatively few and far between, and the key ideas behind the film, elements of fantasy and duplicitous personal relationships have been done more compellingly in other Allen films (The Purple Rose Of Cairo for the former, and films such as Another Woman and Hannah And Her Sisters for the latter). There are, however, a number of plus points. Mia Farrow is typically good as the (initially) shy and retiring Alice, as is Allen-regular Blythe Danner as Alice's sister, Dorothy. Similarly, Mantegna turns in a solid performance, but is outshone by Judy Davis as his recently separated wife (Davis' performance is something of a foretaste of her great turn in Allen's Husband And Wives, made two years later). Cybil Shepherd also appears as TV producer Nancy Brill, who repeatedly rejects the ideas that Alice (who has had the bright idea of becoming a writer) puts forward, on the basis that they are not sensational (sexy) enough - in what is probably an Allen comment on Hollywood generally.
For me, the fantasy elements don't work that well and are probably overdone, for example Alec Baldwin repeatedly appearing as one of Alice's past lovers. However, Allen does cleverly use Alice's power of invisibility to eventually backfire on her (as she discovers her husbands' infidelities) and, in another fantasy sequence, Bernadette Peters puts in a great little cameo appearance as Alice's straight-talking muse. My favourite scene, however, is that towards the end of the film where one of Dr Yang's potions has found its way inadvertently into the egg-nog ('I thought it was nutmeg') at one of Dorothy's parties, leading to a whole series of men propositioning Alice - this is Allen back to his best.
A mixed affair, therefore, but, as with all (or very nearly all) Allen's work, worth seeing for the plus points above.