When I think of Martin Scorsese, I tend to think of “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” or, in more recent years, of a tireless advocate for good cinema. He’s best known for very masculine films, but in between “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” he made a film that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much as his more violent business, though it should be. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (IMDb listing) is the kind of film that reminds us why we watch films in the first place: to be transported to another world in order to be taught about this one. Robert Getchell’s script has a lot to do with the effectiveness of “Alice.” The dialogue is constantly alive, which makes it easy to forget that you’re watching a fiction film. Not surprisingly, the heavy duty performances turned in by Ellen Burstyn, Alfred Lutter and Diane Ladd further strengthen the documentary illusion. Scorsese, to his credit, plumbs the benefits of such a fine script with abandon. His approach to the subject matter is one of freedom in the wake of a thoroughgoing screenplay, and the intoxicating result is that he gets away with certain comic exaggerations that a lesser script wouldn’t have supported.
There’s a lot going on in “Alice,” but the overall story is pretty simple. Alice Hyatt (Burstyn) and her son Tommy (Lutter) hit the road after the man of the house dies in a terrible road accident. Their ultimate destination is Monterey, where Alice hopes to launch a singing career, but they get caught up in Phoenix for a spell, and most of the film takes place in Tucson, where Alice is forced to take a job waiting tables. They may or may not make it to Monterey after the closing credits roll. It doesn’t matter much. Their future by the end of the film is full of promise, whether they remain in Arizona or move on to the West Coast. If this all sounds just a little bit familiar, it’s because “Alice” was the inspiration for the popular television series “Alice,” but the similarities are mostly superficial.
The film opens on an expressionistic set that recalls nothing as much as Dorothy’s farm from “The Wizard of Oz.” The sequence is a study in lighting and cinematography, but it also sets a comic tone, as a young Alice strolls through the farmyard, singing and...cursing like a sailor. It’s little wonder that the playful friction between Alice and her sassy-mouthed son becomes one of the great joys of the movie.
But like a spinning disc that a mesmerist might use to lull his specimen into a trance, “Alice” oscillates between the comic and the tragic, often jarringly. News of the accidental death of Alice’s husband, for instance, reaches her on the heels of a healthy bitch session between her and her best friend. One minute she’s lobbing criticisms behind the man’s back, the next she’s trying to take in his death. It’s impossible not to think back to Burstyn’s performance in "The Exorcist," when she hears of Burke Denning’s death. Her reaction here is similarly powerful. But the mourning period is relatively brief. Donald wasn’t much of a catch in the first place (Alice later admits to having married him only because he was a good kisser), and he had become downright abusive prior to his demise.
Before Alice and Tommy hit the open road, there’s a smaller moment that beautifully illustrates the film’s agility. The car is packed, and Alice and Tommy are ready to drive off, but first Alice needs to say goodbye to her girlfriend Bea. Tommy sits in the passenger seat, anxious to be off and sickened by the buildup of emotions as the two women say their last words to each other. Their performance is real. Their pain at having to part is palpable. Yet the scene is hilarious, because we keep catching glimpses of Tommy’s exasperation.
Phoenix turns out to be a nightmare for Alice and Tommy. Alice does, after an exhausting day of attempts, land a lounge gig, but the money is inadequate and she falls in with a very slippery (make that psychotic) snake named Ben (Harvey Keitel). Still, Alice’s audition for the singing job is one of the film’s subtlest highlights. The lounge scenes are shot in a very flat, gritty style, and as Alice sits down at the piano, we share in her nervousness. But as soon as she begins to play, we might as well be onstage with a superstar. Soft light splashes over Alice’s face as the camera revolves around her, and the dingy lounge is suddenly transformed. Her singing isn’t very good (despite Ben’s later assurances to the contrary), but she’s as present in the music as it’s possible to be, and that’s good enough to get her a paycheck.
Ben’s manipulation of Alice and a sudden turn to violence make it expedient for Alice and Tommy to hightail it out of Phoenix, which is how they end up in Tucson, where Alice meets David (Kris Kristofferson). She takes a waitress job at Mel’s Diner, where David is a regular, and it doesn’t take long for an attraction to form. Unlike Alice’s tryst with Ben, this has the makings of the real thing. Even Tommy likes David (and he doesn’t like people easily). But the world of “Alice” isn’t the kind of paradise it momentarily resembles as David and Alice fall in love. They have a blowout fight, culminating in David doling out some corporal punishment to Tommy. It looks as though Alice’s quest for security and happiness has been thwarted again. But David isn’t the lying conniver that Ben was. He does love Alice, and he’s not going to give her up easily. Luckily Alice feels roughly the same way and after a ladies’ room palaver with coworker Flo (Ladd), she’s up to the challenge of patching things up. In the final scene of the film, we’re thrilled to learn that Tommy still really likes David, too, despite the outburst. And like music to Alice’s ears at this point, her son further reveals that he doesn’t care if they make it to Monterey or not. She’d long ago given up caring herself, but she had convinced herself that Tommy was hell bent. They walk off into an uncertain but hopeful sunset, mother and son, but also best friends.
Filmfodder Grade: A