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Alice's Restaurant (Blu-ray Review)

30 Mar, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Arlo Guthrie, Pat Quinn, James Broderick, Pete Seeger.

Not that it would help a distributor sell an extra million units or anything, but you’d think that when a movie ended up getting a major filmmaker his third and final Oscar nomination for best director, this slice of history might be mentioned somewhere on the box when said title comes out on DVD or Blu-ray. But no. In any event, here’s the only Arthur Penn achievement beyond Bonnie and Clyde and The Miracle Worker to be so honored, a wistful hippie concoction that was and is superior to the same year’s Easy Rider in 1969, even if it lacks the latter’s double aces in the hole: Jack Nicholson’s star-making performance and Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography. The cinematography here (by Michael Nebbia, whose credits were few) always had a brown-ish DeLuxe Color look that this release accurately replicates — one not inappropriate for a movie whose characters were never going to grace any glossy health magazine even on their best days.

Sprung from lead Arlo Guthrie’s same-titled 18½-minute folky monologue tune that became one of the counter-culture staples of the era, Alice’s Restaurant the movie is more factually embellished than the recording, though a lot of its still ticklishly broad comedy would disqualify it as realism under any circumstances. The main story threads, seamlessly woven, have to do with the draft that looms over Arlo’s shoulder, as it did for every era male of a certain age; the dysfunctional marriage of Alice and Ray Brock (who live in a onetime church as hosts to a lot of drifting live-ins as Alice does all the work); and the slow death of Arlo’s papa Woody from Huntington’s Chorea, a subplot whose hospital scenes facilitate the appearance of longtime Woody pal Pete Seeger (playing himself) for musical interludes that are among the movie’s high points.

Though the picture is more sympathetic than not to the hippie ethos, it’s admirably weary of endorsing its hand-to-mouth goods all the way, and the casting of Pat Quinn and James Broderick (Matthew’s real-life father) go a long way right from the beginning to warn us that the whole thing is a house of very flimsy cards. On the surface, Ray is a generally affable what-me-worry kind of guy — but he’s also a dreamer who loafs, paws younger women (or close) and is not above knocking Alice around. She tries to be the strong one but comes off as alternately sturdy and shaky amid the circus that surrounds her, and when the film’s unforgettable final scene becomes the perfect fade-out, everything that’s happened in this part of the story seems to have been inevitable.

What made the movie become a medium hit (a not unimpressive $6 million-plus in ’69 dollars) are two comical set pieces: a post-Thanksgiving littering infraction that resulted in the kind of Guthrie arrest that potentially nixed one being drafted — and the classic draft physical sequence whose surreality rang very true (take it from me). The Stockbridge, MA police chief who made the arrest (William J. Obanhein, aka “Officer Obie”) plays himself in the film, which contributes to an easygoing tone that makes the hospital scenes and a buyer’s remorse wrap-up seem all that more melancholy. Even though his career burned out almost as fast as Preston Sturges’ did, Penn at his best really knew how to juggle moods. When you’ve worked with Brando on the big screen and Martin & Lewis on the small, perhaps you pick up the trait naturally.

For the record, the Restaurant reviews were generally strong, with Gene Siskel placing the movie high up on his 10-best list for 1969. On the other hand, good old Rex Reed put it and The Wild Bunch on his 10-worst that year while picking, if I recall right, Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending (underrated and unjustly obscure today, but still …) as his No 1 best. There were a lot of stimulating things going on in America that year but not a whole lot of them in supper clubs.  

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