Ostensibly a light-hearted adaptation of Arlo Guthrie’s folk-rock, FM classic song, starring Guthrie himself, nothing could be further from the truth about this historically accurate, heavy-hearted farewell to 60’s idealism that it actually turns out to be. Hot on the heels of his blockbuster Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn creates a heartfelt but ultimately melancholy look at the youth culture of the era. The story mixes the actual events of Arlo Guthrie’s life (such as the protracted death of his father Woody from Huntington’s Chorea) and his life as a struggling singer/songwriter trying to forge his own identity as an artist with events of his song “Alice’s Restaurant,” and Penn’s own screenplay to create a kaleidoscopic view of the late-60’s malaise settling in as the realization that “selling out” and “growing up” were essentially the same thing.
Arlo Guthrie himself is entirely charming as he recreates what are undoubtedly many of his own experiences coming of age with a very hip and famous last name in the 1960’s. We follow as he tries out college in Montana, gets kicked out for smoking pot and being a long-hair, and then drifts back to the East Coast, where he lands at the commune-like home of Ray Brock and his wife Alice (she of the restaurant). Ray and Alice are older than the large group of hippies who call Ray’s converted church home. They have cultivated a party-time, familial vibe, where not only are the kids sheltered and fed, but there is an unspoken understanding that their emotional needs will also be met. This kind of works out until, like in all utopian communities, the human frailties of the people at the top start to poison the well. Once Arlo gets back to the Connecticut commune, the movie takes on a far darker tone. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not. Like so many the best relics of the 60’s, I find them unbearably poignant because of the unwitting sadness they portray. The folly of my own youth and some of the less flattering aspects of the 1960’s subculture are meant to be seen as sympathetic or even heroic, yet it is their juxtaposition with the sad realities of the world as it actually exists today that give the movie its greatest resonance to a modern audience. All the ills of society exist in Ray and Alice’s world, it’s just that there are no parents telling you what to do. Ray and Alice nurture and care for the kids, but then things get a little weird when they sleep with some of them, and look the other way while another lapses into mental illness and addiction. During all this, Arlo goes back and forth to a hospital in New Jersey where his father, Woody Guthrie (played by Joseph Boley) lays mute in painful deterioration. We get a good sense of Guthrie’s love for, and confusion about his father. Between these two worlds, Arlo is seeing the disintegration of his biological family and his adopted group of peers. The film reaches its denouement as Arlo rushes to his father’s bedside only to miss his death by minutes, at the same time that his friend is being buried after over-dosing. Director Penn handles this beautifully and sets a bleak tone that sees the film through to its conclusion.
During the last third of the movie the majority of the events in Arlo’s famous song take place. These scenes, involving a small-town cop busting Arlo for littering on Thanksgiving Day and his subsequent adventures in jail and at the New York City Draft Board, are light hearted and probably account for the movie’s initial popularity, and its lasting status as a cult film. However, considering the last movement of the film, they seem almost irrelevant. The Brocks decide to renew their wedding vows in an attempt to bring themselves, and their adoptive family back together. The wedding ceremony starts as a glorious day filled with music, food, partying and dancing, but things start to turn sadly sinister as Ray’s drunken behavior becomes increasingly outlandish and hurtful to Alice. As the embarrassed kids start to drift away, Ray embarks on a futile speech intended to inspire his following. He panders to their utopian instincts, but it is too late…the dream is over, as Lennon would proclaim around the same time.
Alice’s Restaurant ends with a profoundly sad Alice Brock, standing alone next to her home, now literally and figuratively devoid of life and happiness. There couldn’t be a more effective metaphor for the end of the dream that was the 1960’s. While this movie may not succeed at the somewhat modest and unambitious goal of bringing Guthrie’s cartoonish song to life, it succeeds like no other film at bringing down the curtain on a tremendously important, but equally confusing decade in American history.
- Paul Epstein