4 / 5 stars
This November, the Quirky Queue takes a ride in the wayback machine to 1969, for a heaping helping of Thanksgiving dinner with Arlo Guthrie, in the classic cult film adaptation of his folk hit. Although anti-war and anti-establishment messages abound, Alice’s Restaurant is a far cry from glorifying free love, the sexual revolution, or the prominent drug use of the era. Boasting a talented cast, the film is never preachy or overbearing with its politics, showing perhaps a bit more realistic view of the social constructs of the time.
Directed and co-written by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Alice’s Restaurant features Arlo as himself in a film that is more than just a touch autobiographical. After dropping out of college and trekking back to New York to visit his dying father, Woody, Arlo spends most of the film shuffling between the New York hospital, jazz clubs, and Boston, where matriarch Alice (Pat Quinn) and her husband Ray (James Broderick, father of Matthew) have bought an old church and converted it into a home and love den for all their close-knit friends.
While Arlo is our main character, the story also concentrates on Alice, a powerful female character. She’s constantly stretched to the point of snapping by Ray, who is more interested in her playing party host and mother to their friends than being a loving wife. Still, Alice remains strong-willed despite the whirlwind of characters and events around her.
Amongst the plotlines are points of realism about the culture that few other films of that time tackle. One member of the group, for instance, is a heroin addict who just can’t seem to kick the habit despite his friends’ support. Where many today see free love as a wonderful, guiltless, free-for-all, Alice’s Restaurant constantly undercuts the idea by showing us the jealousy of the characters involved. Even Arlo quietly refuses the advances of underage groupies and even Alice herself. The film reminds us that there really is no such thing as free love: someone always pays for it.
Based on true experiences (Woody did pass away from Huntington’s disease, and there was a real Alice and Ray who lived in a converted church where most of the group’s Thanksgiving dinners took place), Alice’s Restaurant is an interesting view of the period, doing an excellent job juxtaposing the dying conservative culture with the burgeoning hippie movement.
And while Arlo Guthrie isn’t the greatest of actors, his charm and charisma help support his performance, as well as the skills of the supporting actors (both Quinn and Broderick give superior efforts). Featuring a music score by Guthrie, complete with his trademark acoustic guitar and kazoo, music by Joni Mitchell, and a brief cameo by folk guru Pete Seeger, Alice’s Restaurant is a great view into a period of American social history which has been overly myth-ified. The film does a fine job balancing both the comedic (the scene where Arlo is drafted is a hilarious parody of military bureaucracy) and the dramatic.
While the end may be a bit depressing, it fits perfectly well and reminds us, as the song does, that you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. Except Alice.