Dir: Martin Scorsese
Why Is This On The Syllabus?
There are any number of reasons I've been meaning to see Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore for years. Take your pick from the fact that it's an early diversion for Martin Scorsese, quite different from most of the rest of his work, and made in an incredibly fertile period (in between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver). It also has an outstanding cast; an Oscar winning Ellen Burstyn, an Oscar nominated Diane Ladd, Harvey Kietel, Kris Kristofferson and an 11 year old Jodie Foster.
What Did I Learn?
That even in the seventies Martin Scorsese was not infallible.
I've been fortunate with the An Education project so far; I've seen several very good films and one great one, but the winning streak had to break at some point, and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore did it. Alice (Burstyn) is in her mid-thirties and living what seems to be a pretty unhappy life as a housewife, rather than fulfilling her ambition of being a singer, with her husband and their 11 year old son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). Her husband dies in an accident at work, and Alice and Tommy go on the road, aiming to end up in her home town of Monterey, but making stops along the way where Alice takes jobs singing or waitressing and ends up meeting suitors like Kietel and Kristofferson.
The basic problem was simple for me: I just didn't find Alice very interesting. She's a very unprepossessing character, very average, and while there's something to be said for dramatising the everyday lives of very normal people, there was little that hooked me in here. This isn't to say that Burstyn is bad, because she's not, in fact she's impressive, but Alice is just dull. She's got none of the spunk of Diane Ladd's Flo; a fellow waitress in a diner on one of the stops on Alice and Tommy's stop start roadtrip, and much of the time she feels a bit like a crying prop, moved from pillar to post, from man to man, but seldom moving the drama forward herself, and apparently (given the film's ending) not learning a damn thing on the way.
Another problem is that Alice is almost always accompanied by Tommy, who I understand is supposed to be annoying... but... JESUS. Not since Bob in The House By the Cemetery (yeah, I mentioned Lucio Fulci in an article about 70's Scorsese) have I wanted so desperately to be able to punch a small child in the mouth. He's a constant, whining, pain in the arse, really, the noise couldn't be more irritating if Alice took a police siren everywhere she went. Again, it's not that Alfred Lutter plays the role badly, it's just that the character is so exquisitely punchable.
The other performances largely follow a similar pattern; good actors in roles that are either one note (Keitel, Ladd) or so brief you hardly notice them (Foster, who is flat out fantastic for about ten minutes, Lane Bradbury, who does three minutes as Keitel's wronged wife). Diane Ladd is great, and gives the film a much needed shot of energy, her character also, eventually, lifts Alice's character somewhat, leading to one the film's best scenes where the two of them sit outside and talk about men. In the few scenes where Alice is having fun the film does spark to life a bit, another great scene comes when she's telling Kristofferson's David about how she learnt to kiss. Unfortunately these moments are few and far between.
Martin Scorsese is clearly out of his comfort zone, and he makes some very odd choices here. The film opens in 4:3 ratio, with an incredibly obviously stagebound tribute to The Wizard of Oz, establishing Alice's love of music. It's utterly against the tone of the the rest of the film. Scorsese has a fluid camera style for this film, but to me it felt extraneous, and never stopped the movie from feeling like a stage play. Again, it's not a case of a job being done badly, but the elements never seemed to fit together for me.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore isn't a bad film, it's just a dull one. I never warmed to Alice, or really to any of the other characters, and that meant that the film never had the emotional weight and pull it was clearly striving for. A major disappointment.