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Woody Allen's Alice spends too much time in Wonderland

ALICE

Directed by Woody Allen.

Starring Mia Farrow, Joe Mantegna,

Alec Baldwin and William Hurt.

Now playing at Loews Harvard Square.

By ERIC COLBURN

ALICE, the 20th film written and directed by Woody Allen, is a frequently elegant, if lifeless, movie about the spiritual awakening of a wealthy Manhattan housewife. Alice Tate (Mia Farrow) has been having back pain; she hears from various people of a mysterious acupuncturist/herbalist named Dr. Yang (who can, it seems, diagnose anything from an ulcer to vaginal warts by the mere taking of a pulse -- and then quickly effect a painless herbal cure). Alice shares the audience's doubts about Dr. Yang's legitimacy; but, motivated by more perhaps than just her back, she goes to see him the next day.

Dr. Yang, played tongue-in-cheek by the late Keye Luke, takes Alice's pulse and tells her, "Problem is not back. Problem is here, and here," pointing to her head and heart. Soon, he is giving her the first of many amazing herbal medicines -- love potions, invisibility drugs, opium, etc. -- and she is off on her movie-long trip through wonderland, finding out, as the press kit puts it, "what really counts in life." She realizes, apparently for the first time, that she is unhappy with her coddled existence.

Though Alice seems to move sluggishly, a lot actually happens: Braced by one of Dr. Yang's potions (not to be taken if you've recently eaten shellfish, she is told), Alice makes certain advances toward a man she's been heretofore shyly eyeing. Other drugs allow her to visit, and be visited by, the ghosts of people from her past. She is inspired by Mother Teresa, she wishes she had a career, she enrolls in a writing class and more.

Even before the lame montage ending (which recalls Spike Lee's similarly disappointing Mo' Better Blues), the movie seems cloying and inauthentic. A profusion of jokes -- Alice has more jokes than do most of Allen's other recent films -- can't alleviate its heavy-handedness. This is partly a product of Mia Farrow's performance, which is alternately galling and undistinguished, and partly due to an awkward script which imposes on its title character an ingenuousness that could only be brought off -- if at all -- by an actor with more verve and vitality than Farrow can muster.

Perhaps if someone else had played Alice I wouldn't be so suspicious that certain gender stereotypes were at work here: Would it take back pain, I wonder, to make a male character aware that his life was fundamentally unfulfilling? I doubt it; it seems to me that Alice is often dense and passive in ways that men in Woody Allen movies rarely are.

If Mia Farrow is less than outstanding, then the rest of the star-filled ensemble is pretty good. In his small but perfectly-written role as Alice's rich WASP husband, William Hurt is flawless, never descending (as would have been so easy) into parody, while still remaining by far the funniest character in the movie. As Alice's potential lover, Joe Mantegna is magnificent, but for a single awkward scene in which he cries, flabbergasted, too many unconvincing "oh my Gods." He's one of the few actors I can think of who can be deep without being ironical. Alec Baldwin, Cybill Shepherd, Blythe Danner, Gwen Verdon and Judy Davis are all extremely competent in their tiny parts.

I found it pleasantly disarming to see such big-name stars -- actors like Baldwin, Shepherd and Hurt, each of whom we are used to seeing play primary parts -- in roles that are essentially only secondary or tertiary. They appear on screen for five minutes or so and then are gone. Some have suggested that Woody Allen's films, the makings of which are apparently quite cozy affairs, are like home movies. In Alice, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say this effect is extended even beyond its usual scope, so that Alice becomes, in a way, a home-movie of the film world.

If sometimes an actor's fame can detract from his effectiveness, in Alice the quantity of bona-fide stars in minor roles may actually end up lending credence to an entire implied artificial world by increasing our awareness of the artificiality of it all. Perhaps Alec Baldwin's painter is the hero of some other movie; perhaps Cybill Shepherd's ambitious television executive was once the protagonist of some Working Girl-esque ladder-climbing comedy.

Then again, maybe not, but that I wound up amusing myself with such fanciful speculation should give you an idea of just how unengaging, this movie is. I saw Alice on a weekday afternoon in Harvard Square. True, the theater was only half-full, but even so, the number of people laughing was shockingly low. Woody Allen fans will go see Alice no matter what, but others might want to think twice.