First Time Watch: Alice’s Restaurant (1969)

By Christian DiMartino

To a certain degree, Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant is a good movie in the way that it feels as if it came out of a time capsule. Here is a film from 1969, and in every fiber of its being, it feels and seems like it came from the 60’s, from its free spirit, its costumes, its mood, etc. Yet it also feels very 60’s in terms of its concept, its spirit, and its source material, and as someone who does not have any connection to the source material, therefore, there was no connection to make from the film.

Arlo Guthrie is the son of Woody Guthrie, the singer/songwriter behind “This Land is Your Land.” Arlo also writes music that depicts slices of Americana, yet here lies my first problem with Alice’s Restaurant: seeing as I am not a child of the 60’s, nor do I have any connection to Arlo Guthrie, I came into this film unaware of him, or his music. Had the film been titled, oh, I don’t know, Somebody to Love, following the experiences of Jefferson Airplane or something, my attention would have been full. It is obvious that I was not the crowd for this film, and perhaps that is not a fair criticism. So why, you may ask, did I decide to watch Alice’s Restaurant?

To be honest, Penn was what drew me to this film. He earned his third Oscar nomination for directing here, so out of curiosity, I needed to see what the man behind Bonnie & Clyde, Little Big Man, and The Miracle Worker was doing in a project like… well, this. The film I saw was… very much not my thing. Milos Foreman’s Hair would attempt something very similar years later, and to a much more successful, enjoyable degree. Alice’s Restaurant came across as out of touch, out of time, and for true believers only.

The film is the cinematic version of the song, which, again, I have never heard, nor heard of, before this movie (though I hear it’s 18 minutes long). We follow Arlo Guthrie (played by… Arlo Guthrie) as he tries to avoid the military draft, hangs around college, his dying dad,  and spends time with his friends, such as Alice and Ray, in an abandoned church…? The first portion of this film is just a slice of life in the 60’s, and to some degree it sort of works, but it never fully grips.

Then the film kicks more into gear, story wise, in the latter portion, but even then it feels somewhat tonally inconsistent. Soon, Arlo begins narrating/singing, about the events that are happening. My guess is, these are excerpts from the song, brought to life. They probably should have found a way to lead with these excerpts, but I digress. After a Thanksgiving get-together, they throw a bunch of stuff down a hill, and are arrested for littering. This comes back into play once more whenever Arlo is called back in for the draft. This portion of the film genuinely works. For about seven minutes, this film remains comedically inspired, and it makes one wish the rest of the film could’ve had its energy. There is also a last-minute, half-baked subplot involving a drug addict friend.

This film felt a bit all over the place to me, and it’s really strange that Penn would follow up his greatest achievement, Bonnie & Clyde, with… this. Perhaps this film was a revelation in 1969, but looking at its current Rotten Tomatoes score (61%) that does not seem likely. Perhaps Arlo Guthrie was a revelation in 1969. As an outsider, it must be said that, and not to be rude, onscreen there is nothing really appealing about him. His music might be good, but onscreen he’s an unattractive weirdo.

This material feels just a wee bit too mundane for me. Perhaps because it’s based on a song… a song that, again, I have never heard of. Alice’s Restaurant also appears to be juggling a lot, and yet also not much at all. The final result is a movie that doesn’t really have a proper identity. Although it sounds like I hate it, I reward the film with two stars because it isn’t my thing, though it could very well be someone else’s. Or maybe I’m just not deep enough, man.

One Oscar Nomination: Best Director

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