Originally Written on 8/27/2011
How’s this for a sticky wicket? Stuck in my New York City apartment in the path of Hurricane Irene, realizing I have an entire weekend of homebound drudgery ahead of me, what better way to carve away the boredom than fire off a few reviews. Having write ups of The Help, The Hedgehog and the continuation of my Review My Collection saga to get through, what better way to make lemonade out of windswept lemons than get some work done. Too bad Rotten Tomatoes’ messaging system has decided to respect the state of emergency and not work. Grrrr….
So, to those of you who run into it, here my latest installment of Review My Collection, the surprisingly wonderful Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the first studio backed film of Martin Scorsese’s career and a little known jewel in the director’s legendary collection of films.
The film’s namesake is played, in an Oscar winning role, by the great Ellen Burstyn. We first meet Alice trying to hold herself together in dysfunctional family made up of her abusive husband and her smart aleck son Tommy, brilliantly played by Alfred Lutter. Alice does her best to keep her emotions and dreams of professional singing in check for the sake of her family but when an unexpected event casts her and her son on a road trip to her childhood home of Monterey, they both learn quite a lot about life, love and the nature of the importance of family. While I know it can be a somewhat clichéd saying at this point, Burstyn is absolutely brilliant in the lead role, providing a much needed comic edge to go with some of the high drama of the script. Her connection with young Tommy is palpable and drives the movie forward, creating an us against the world sense of unity while at the same time never glossing over the natural stress of moving on after a tragedy.
Naturally both mother and son come across some interesting characters in their travels to California, al of which do a great job filling out the world Alice and Tommy find themselves in. Frequent Scorsese collaborator Harvey Keitel appears as an explosive piano bar patron, Harry Northup as a creepy bartender and the deliciously crass Diane Ladd shines as Flo, a fellow waitress at a Tucson breakfast café. In this small town restaurant, Alice meets David, a neighboring rancher who instantly takes a liking to Alice. This chance encounter sets up the second half of the film and while some of the moments lend themselves to overdramatization, the likeability of both Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson as the kindly cowpoke more than make up for any uneven emotional overtones. Kristofferson plays the part with gentility and charm mixed with a humanity that permeates some of the more intense moments of the second act. Throughout it all Scorsese directs the film with an even hand. Although this was only his third film, after Who’s Knocking On My Door and the seminal Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore features many of Scorsese’s filmmaking trademarks and represents a filmmaker who’s brave enough to let his actors live on screen while providing his own personal flourishes. The result is a film that is distinctly Scorsese without being aware it is.
A film that most Scorsese fans have probably looked past in favor of more popular experiences, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is an unexpected delight, filled with moving performances, excellent direction and a story that balances humor and drama with an even hand. Buoyed by a virtuoso performance by Ellen Burstyn and kept at that height thanks to some natural chemistry with both the young Alfred Lutter and Kris Kristofferson, the film firmly cements the reality of loss and the natural healing that happens after. A fine film for a windswept afternoon, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore should be required viewing for not just Scorsese fans but for anybody who enjoys a well balanced dramedy featuring fantastic acting. Now, if only Rotten Tomatoes would let me send this to the world, I’d be in perfect shape.
Score – 90%