Woody Allen doesn't appear in "Alice," which he wrote and directed, but his comic presence is quite noticeable - and occasionally even a one-liner slips through that is pure Woody.
And like "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and his hilarious episode of "New York Stories," "Alice" is a fantasy that is quite surprising as you begin to realize the direction it's taking.In many ways this is Woody Allen's version of a modern-day "Alice in Wonderland," with Mia Farrow in the title role, a pampered, rich Manhattan housewife on the verge of a midlife crisis that is destined to become a voyage of self-discovery.
Alice has been married for 16 years to a bland, philandering businessman (William Hurt) who inherited his fortune. He tends to ignore her and their children, and as the film opens Alice is fantasizing about having an affair with an attractive man (Joe Mantegna) she met at her children's pre-school.
Much of the film takes on a should-she-or-shouldn't-she tone as her fantasy clashes with her personal sense of values and her strict Catholic upbringing. But the story really takes shape when she goes to a Chinese acupuncturist (the late Keye Luke) because she has back pains.
Instead of sticking her with needles, however, he delves into her subconscious, determines that her back pains are psychological and proceeds to deal with her inner turmoil.
At first the bizarre herbs he gives her seem like a panacea to go along with his advice, but as the film progresses they take on a wild literal power all their own, allowing Alice to see what's really going on with her life.
"Alice" boasts many hilarious moments, culminating with a screamingly funny sequence involving a love potion. Allen does have a simplistic message to offer at the end, but mostly he's simply going for laughs - and they are here in abundance.
As a comedy, "Alice" is certainly lighter fare than "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and it's not an ensemble piece, as are many of Allens other films.
Farrow is terrific in the lead, conveying the inner turmoil of a woman whose serious thoughts and desires have become buried within her, yet never sacrificing the film's humor for that effect.
And the supporting cast is quite remarkable: Besides Hurt and Mantegna, there's Cybill Shepherd, Alec Baldwin, Blythe Danner, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Gwen Verdon and an unbilled Judith Ivey. (Woody Allen regular Julie Kavner, who is also the voice of Marge on "The Simpsons," appears only briefly.)
Of these, Mantegna, Baldwin, Danner and Peters get the best opportunities to shine.
"Alice" is rated PG-13 for sex, profanity, vulgarity and some drug use (opium at the acupuncturist's office), none of it particularly excessive.