Alice's Restaurant (1969) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: Originally rated R, but re-edited to get a PG rating (I'd rate it PG-13 for sexual situations, drug use and some language)
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Arlo Guthrie, Patricia Quinn, James Broderick, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Michael McClanathan, Geoff Outlaw, Tina Chen
Director: Arthur Penn
Screenplay: Venable Herndon, Arthur Penn
If Arlo Guthrie could squeeze the real-life events down to an 18-minute "talking blues" song, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," you could easily squeeze Arthur Penn's screen adaptation of that song into an interesting film of about that same length. The problem here is that Alice's Restaurant (the movie) is 93 minutes too long, full of scenes that evoke about the same amount of feeling and interest as watching an endless amount of deleted scenes, without much commentary to string them together, cut from a much more cohesive movie. It's one of those cult films that people could only love for reasons other than the movie itself, whether for the nostalgic value of the folk music, the hippie counterculture period, or they're huge fans of Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man). If you don't fit into any of those three categories, chances are you just don't fit in, man!
The story, such as it is, basically relates the time when Arlo Guthrie went to visit Alice for Thanksgiving, and afterward gets nailed for illegal dumping when he has no place to stash all of the post-party trash, then later recounting how all of this led to his ability to evade being drafted.
It's an idea that seems better in the mind than executed here, which is probably why the song was so popular: it allowed you to imagine the situations in your mind. However, as a movie, it's all very "much ado about nothing," with a meandering storyline whereby hippies like Arlo get it on with each other, smoke a little herb, and get hassled at every opportunity by the Man. Somewhere in there are a feast, a wedding, and a funeral, and while there are occasional nice touches here and there that will no doubt please fans of the stars or the song, there's really no vested interest from a narrative stand-point to really give a damn about any of these people or their lives.
Ah, yes. Context is the thing! Alice's Restaurant is a movie that requires a good deal of context to properly enjoy, and as an encapsulation of the end of the hippie movement, it might be seen as an important document above and beyond its meager story. However, the film itself is a failure in delivering its own messages, with stilted dialogue, confused motivations, and lackadaisical delivery. For a film that almost pushes two hours in length, it has more than enough time to make its case and stand on its own terms.
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant, so long as that thing isn't great filmmaking. Listen to the song, enjoy it for what it is, and use that 93 minutes you've saved to watch a much better movie.
©2003 Vince Leo