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Alex in Wonderland (DVD Review)

26 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Donald Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn, Federico Fellini, Jeanne Moreau.

Every bit as hippie-dippie-ish then as it will seem to anyone now, Paul Mazursky’s second directorial outing nonetheless merits its cult status — thanks in part to its lead performers and the basic decency of the characters they play (living in a faux Wonderland or not). But the movie’s other merit is in at least halfway nailing the fractured Hollywood of the day — when the Vietnam War had so inverted the country the no one knew what moviegoers would pay to see. At the time, I had one straight-arrow friend (no-nonsense enough that he became a surgeon) who used Alex as the yardstick by which to gauge the worst movies of all time. I also had an artsy friend who found Mazursky’s screen conceit risible — until he ended up in Hollywood for a successful writing career and realized the degree to which the picture had captured some evocative lightning.

The Alex character (Donald Sutherland) is somewhat, though not quite, at the stage where Mazursky found himself at the time when he was just coming off the smash critical/commercial hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (co-written, as here, with his then partner Larry Tucker). Alex’s own picture hasn’t opened yet, but the buzz is so strong that success seems assured enough for the phonies to be lining up. Now he has to weigh the pros and cons of falling into a bigger-home mortgage trap with his often-bedraggled wife (Ellen Burstyn) and two daughters — plus the merits or non of follow-up projects being dangled at him right and left. One of the movie’s funniest scenes is an extended set-piece where a smoothie producer on the MGM lot (expertly played by Mazursky himself) dangles a project that portrays Huckleberry Finn and slave Jim as black/white political revolutionaries sailing the Mississippi in ideological purity. We snicker at this, and we should – though I can’t help noting that it sounds more interesting than at least 90 per cent of the sequels I saw listed this past summer on the multiplex marquee that is minutes away from my house.

Even in 1970, everyone pretty well knew that Mazursky (who recorded a commentary for this release) had to be enamored with Fellini. This was due to the Fellini-esque scene he tacked onto the finale of Bob & Carol — when, it appeared, he couldn’t figure out any other way to get out of the picture once the two couples elect not to swap mates or even have sex (which left all the Natalie Wood/Dyan Cannon voyeurs in the audience crestfallen, believe you me). This time, he stages an elaborate, same-school fantasy production number in which Alex directs, but also finds himself in, all-out military combat in the streets of L.A. in front of a theater marquee advertising The Beatles’ Let It Be. There’s also a trek to Rome where Alex encounters the great man himself in his editing room — no home run but a charming scene, to be sure. Less successful is Alex’s bump-into Jeanne Moreau at a bookstore (near that same theater playing Let It Be) — an encounter that may be a figment of his imagination even before the scene suddenly takes on an unambiguous fantasy dimension.

A mercurial protagonist who likes his grass and LSD, protagonist Alex (apparently 36, per one line of dialogue) more or less has his feet on the ground. The wife Burstyn plays absolutely does — and one definitely senses, both in the writing and her artistry, that this character has bought into a little more than she bargained for at marriage. Late-bloomer Burstyn’s career didn’t get rolling until she was in her late 30s, following a litany of marginal roles under other last names (usually McRae). Following an unforgettable earlier in the year (and finally billed as Burstyn) in Tropic of Cancer for Joseph Strick, Alex marked her first major showcase. At once, you could see that she projected a rather amazing mix of ground-down beauty and alternate dimensions (manifested from film to film) of down-to-earth-ness and edginess bordering on neurosis. Just one year later came Burstyn’s Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show, and her career was off and running.

More than any other studio of the day, fading MGM (Alex’s distributor) seemed to have less of a clue about changing movie tastes than any other studio. When Sutherland (with counter-culture facial hair) walks onto the MGM lot to “take a meeting,” it’s hard to tell if the background studio plug for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Peter O’Toole version) just happened to be in the shot or was inserted into the scene as irony (probably both). Actually, Chips turned out to be more respectable than anyone expected — and it certainly had to be more to the liking of MGM brass who, in December 1970, saw a pair of off-the-wall auteur oddities (Alex and Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud) open within days of each other. You figure that both made the studio suits long to do what they sometimes did: fashion George Kennedy melodramas for drive-ins.

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