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ALICE'S RESTAURANT - Skull
Rated R
Copyright 1969 Florin
Reviewed by Andrew Borntreger on 16 November 2007

The Characters:  

  • Arlo Guthrie - Arlo Guthrie! Of course he plays himself; who else are you going to cast as Arlo Guthrie?
  • Alice - You can get everything you want, including Alice (if you are a virile young man), at her restaurant.
  • Ray - James Broderick! It must have been hard having a midlife crisis during the 60's.
  • Roger - He looks like a rogue Amish farmer or one of the extras from Planet of the Apes. Not since the height of the British Empire has facial hair been this poofy.
  • Woody & Marjorie - These would be our main character's parents. Arlo calls her Mom, but always refers to the older Guthrie by his first name. Is there something we should know about the family dynamics here?
  • Officer Obie - It's a pig, in the 60's! Make fun of him!
  • Shelly - He is really good at motorcycle racing. Unfortunately, he is a little bit better at being a meth addict.
  • Group W Bench Sergeant - M. Emmet Walsh! He does not do much besides talk really fast and point his finger, but I just had to point out that the Group W Bench has a sergeant in charge of it and that man is M. Emmet Walsh.

Buy It!

The Plot: 

The basis for this movie, the song "Alice's Restaurant," is something I own on CD. Those who know me might find that surprising, but those who really know me probably think my love of Arlo Guthrie's masterwork makes perfect sense. The song is a wonderful piece of comedy, satire, and truth. You have to understand that I often find the best jokes are those with a basis in fact. Listening to Arlo sing about Officer Obie, implements of destruction, glossy photographs, and the Group W Bench, I can sympathize with him. The world is crazy. People are crazy. Quite a few of the people in charge are crazy. What is a poor hippie to do?

In Arlo's case, college does not prove to be a successful endeavor. Every time that he experiments with free expression, a professor or a roommate gets angry. When Roger drops in for a visit, the presence of two hippies equals critical mass. Roger is run out of town by the cops one night; Arlo discovers the joy of diving through a plate glass window the next evening. Since the dean of the college is not supportive (being thrown through a window is apparently against the school's code of ethics), Arlo hits the road.

His first stop is the hospital where Woody is receiving hospice care. Arlo visits his parents a couple of times during the movie. The young singer never seems to be able to connect to the two people who raised him. Now and then, Arlo will play some music for Woody; most of the time he seems uncomfortable in the presence of his mother and father. Watching the old man smoke, despite not being able to sit up in bed or speak, could be some of it. Beyond that, I do not have a clue. We never get any insight into Arlo's family. Woody in bed, Marjorie standing nearby, Arlo looking uncomfortable - that's the sum of these scenes.

For some reason, I think that Arlo's interactions with his parents have a deeper meaning. The director probably thinks I am a woolhead for not understanding the message. My problem is that I don't understand half of the stuff that hippies immediately embrace as a universal truth. It is like some guy walking up to me on the street and handing me a tennis ball. He doesn't say anything, just hands me a tennis ball. We stare at each other for a few minutes. Finally, I ask, "What does this mean?" and the guy goes flying off the handle, screaming, "Your shoe is untied! See the tennis ball? Your shoe is untied!"

No, the tennis ball does not have the words "Your shoe is untied" printed on it. The only thing printed on the tennis ball is "WILSON."

Since Arlo is on a roll and his parents are square, he rolls on down to Ray and Alice's new home. The two lovebirds purchased a deconsecrated church and are busy fixing up the place. A small army of artists and craftsman pitch in to make the church habitable. I am not sure what Ray does; he might be independently wealthy. What Ray and Alice constantly do is take in young adults who are adrift in the world. It does not appear that they ever do anything helpful for these lost souls. Oh, Alice cooks meals and Ray likes racing motorcycles, but we never see the commune do anything besides two remodeling jobs (the church and the restaurant).

They all must like "being" together. Sit in the church, stare at each other, maybe dye a couple of shirts, but mostly sit in the church and stare at each other. That does not sound appealing to me. Arlo finds life at the church just as boring. He travels around New York City, playing his music and doing his best to avoid having sex with underage teeny-bopper groupies and female, yet disturbingly manly, club owners.

Back in Massachusetts, Alice opens her restaurant and immediately discovers that Ray and the "kids" are a disruptive influence. Her husband is especially bad about causing chaos. He is a forty-year-old who wears jean jackets and hangs out with a bunch of teenagers. Ray should get a girlfriend and buy a motorcycle and be done with the midlife crisis crap. Hold on, he does flirt with young women and race motorcycles. What the heck? The surefire cure for a midlife crisis is obviously not working for Ray.

Alice is not a very positive influence, either. She has a bad tendency to equate friendship (when it involves a young man) with needing to engage in sexual intercourse. Yet another subject that the film never seems to address is Ray and Alice's infidelity. Do they have some sort of understanding? Is just what they do? I guess that the free love movement was popular around 1969, but I am so confused about the emotional free-for-all that I cannot make heads or tails out of what Alice and Ray are doing with their heads and tails.

The micro-society inside the church functions best when it has a purpose, so Ray offers up Alice to cook a Thanksgiving feast for everyone. The celebration is complete anarchy, with people in costumes, blessings delivered as jokes, and motorcycles driving inside of the church. This was one of my problems with the film. No, this was one of my problems with the 60's. The outright mocking of tradition and what other people held dear was not free expression. People called it free expression, but that was just a masquerade. In reality, it was a very mean-spirited insult intended to hurt and offend those being mocked. When they weren't trying to insult squares, they still managed to, because they would do things without thinking about others.

My problem with the 60's is that, despite the message, deep down it was all about "Me."

Yes, I believe in free speech and free expression. I did not say that the members of the commune should be tear gassed and beaten with metal batons. However, free speech or not, it does not mean I should think they are great people for acting like they do.

Following the Thanksgiving meal that couldn't be beat, Ray and Alice retire to their chambers for some post-feast coitus (turkey and sex - Ray is going to sleep for days). Thinking that cleaning up the church would be an awfully nice way to thank their hosts, Roger and Arlo fill the latter's red VW microbus with the trash and head to the dump. It's Thanksgiving Day; the dump is closed. Rather than just take the trash back to the church, they find a place where someone else illegally dumped their trash and add their load on top. Problem solved, back to the church they go.

Don't even give me the line about the trash starting to stink. I did not see any food waste in the trash that Arlo and Roger dumped out. You would think that feeding sixty people a holiday meal would create a substantial amount of mess. None of it was in the VW microbus, unless somebody was eating off of the car grill.

We then get into the whole bit about Arlo and Roger being arrested for littering. Officer Obie goes overboard, then is completely emasculated when the trial results in a verdict of community service and picking up the garbage. The orphaned pile of trash is eventually transported to New York City. That means that Ray and Alice's refuse is last seen on a garbage scow, leaving the harbor for points unknown. Fly free, little trash heap!

When does Arlo report to the building on Whitehall Street to get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected? Right about now. I could be wrong, but this might be the most guys in tighty whiteys that I have ever been subjected to, by any film (yes, even that damned Voodoo Academy). My reaction was...not appreciative. I probably looked like the famous screenshot of Donald Sutherland screaming in the 1978 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Egad, but that gave me the screaming meemies.

There is more to this movie. Arlo eventually meets a nice girl of Asian descent and they, you know, hang out together. Shelly starts doing drugs again; he runs off to NYC to OD and die when Ray confronts him about it. Oh, and because we have had a death, we now require a funeral. Have to tell you, didn't enjoy the funeral scene. Everybody stands around in the snow and looks sad while some girl sings a song.

I know that it all means something. I just can't decipher the message.

My take on "Alice's Restaurant" is that the movie fails by being (much) less entertaining than the song. Heck, I think that the sections of the movie that actually follow the song, those being the arrest for littering and trip to the military entrance processing station, probably take all of fifteen minutes. Those are the best parts of the movie and are taken right from the song. The song is eighteen minutes long!

Things I Learned From This Movie: 

  • Being an employee of the Selective Service during the 60's was not recommended for anyone with a family history of high blood pressure.
  • The natural enemy of the American Hippie is the plate glass window.
  • Spoons were not invented until 1970 or so.
  • What churches lack is insulation and decoration.
  • After having sex in a church, it is customary to ring the bell.
  • Telling the difference between someone playing the harmonica and someone trying to eat the instrument is a task best left to the experts.
  • There are no public landfills between Massachusetts and New York City.
  • Professional auctioneers are not exempt from the draft.
  • Motorcycle racers always return to New York City to die.

Stuff To Watch For: 

  • Opening Credits - Who set the line spacing at -1?
  • 10 mins - Huh, he must not like pizza.
  • 22 mins - RANDOM GRATUITOUS BREAST SHOT! Wait a second. How old is she supposed to be?
  • 38 mins - Anyone experiencing nausea should stop watching the movie.
  • 48 mins - If I am ever bedridden with a terminal illness, please, for crying out loud, do not let a hippie with a banjo into my room.
  • 60 mins - Does anybody want to guess why the baby is so mellow? Anyone at all?
  • 73 mins - For goodness sakes, think of the pottery!
  • 80 mins - Not going to ask where he hid that switchblade. Nope, not going to ask.
  • 93 mins - Wait, wasn't this movie supposed to be over two minutes ago? Oh, no! The case says 1 hour, 51 minutes, not 1 hour, 31 minutes. I still have almost twenty minutes to go! Ahhhhhhh!
  • 100 mins - Body functions failing...wishing that I was like that woman's teeth and...not in this movie.

Quotes: 

  • Ray: "You know, chasing around after you I ran into all sorts of people we used to know."
    Alice: "Oh yeah?"
    Ray: "I invited them up to the church for Thanksgiving."
    Alice: "No."
    Ray: "And Roger's being back..."
    Alice: "No, Ray. You're putting me on!"
    Ray: "Just a few kids for Thanksgiving."

 Audio clips in wav formatSOUNDSStarving actors speak out 

FileDialog
Green Music Note alicerest1.wav Selective Service Clerk: "For 'date of birth' you put down 'Scorpio.' I want the specific date."
Arlo: "OK."
Green Music Note alicerest2.wav Professor: "Perhaps you would be good enough to tell me just who did write that folk junk you're playing."
Arlo: "I wrote it. Me."
Green Music Note alicerest3.wav Arlo: "I played out my two weeks. Took a pair of hand-tooled boots and four square suits my mother gave me. Traded them for an amplifier, which I amplified some and put down as a down payment on a red VW microbus. Got me a Trinity Racing Association triangle from Ray and stuck it on the door. Now, if I can just get me a couple of hit records, I'll be all bailed out."
Green Music Note alicerest4.wav A hippie Thanksgiving blessing.
Green Music NoteTheme Song Listen to a clip from the soundtrack.

 Click for a larger imageIMAGESScenes from the movie 

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 Watch a sceneVIDEOMPEG video files 

Video Clipalicerest1.mpg - 4.1m
Here is the culmination of the Group W Bench scene. I think that anyone who has listened to the song will agree with me: the song is much, much better.

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Comments:Write CommentPages: [1]
Re: Alice's Restaurant
Reply #1. Posted on November 19, 2007, 10:16:07 AM by Adam K
I'm no hippy (honest) and I'm no Arlo Guthrie fan, although I did enjoy this album.  I am, however, a big fan of your website and can't thank you enough for the hours of amusement the reviews have provided me with. 

However, I think you're very wrong about this film.  Now, it's been a while -- about 15 or 20 years -- since I saw it, but I remember being surprised at how bleak and bitter it is, at how critical it is of the whole idealistic 60s thing.  I'm disappointed that you're quite so hard on it.  I don't think it's a bad film at all.  A little dated, certainly, but it does its bit for casting a discerning eye on the decade that's too often idealised or trashed.
Re: Alice's Restaurant
Reply #2. Posted on January 29, 2008, 05:17:49 AM by Joel Kazoo
"The outright mocking of tradition and what other people held dear was not free expression. People called it free expression, but that was just a masquerade. In reality, it was a very mean-spirited insult intended to hurt and offend those being mocked. When they weren't trying to insult squares, they still managed to, because they would do things without thinking about others.

My problem with the 60's is that, despite the message, deep down it was all about 'Me.'

Yes, I believe in free speech and free expression. I did not say that the members of the commune should be tear gassed and beaten with metal batons. However, free speech or not, it does not mean I should think they are great people for acting like they do. "

I couldn't have put it better myself, very astute!  Thumbup

Love the site, keep it up!

jkazoo
Re: Alice's Restaurant
Reply #3. Posted on January 31, 2008, 12:43:24 PM by Joe the Destroyer
Great song, awful movie.  I think that's all that needs to be said.
Re: Alice's Restaurant
Reply #4. Posted on February 16, 2008, 04:34:56 AM by tallpaul
The thing that's interesting to me about this movie, is that guy that plays---Roger, is it, the one that wears glasses?---I forget his actual name, but I watched this movie a few months back, and I saw that guy and I thought: he looks familiar to me, it seems like I've seen him before.  I could've sworn that he used to be in some old band I'd seen years ago.  Well, I 'googled' the guys' name (having just watched the movie) and the ONLY thing I could tell that he was 'famous' for, was this very movie, that, and being Arlo Guthries' buddy, I found some pics of them together from recent years.  To me, it's funny how times have changed, in the early days of Hollywood, you could pay a quarter to watch a movie being made, and it was entirely possible that you could be cast as an 'extra'.  All that guy had to do, was BE Arlo Guthries' pal, and he got in a movie!

And yes I'm jealous, I wanna be in a movie!  Movies like this PROVE that there's no requirement for actual talent!  Great site, keep-up the good work!
Re: Alice's Restaurant
Reply #5. Posted on June 05, 2008, 04:19:25 PM by David F.
I have to agree with Adam K.; the movie is an extended, elaborate apology for Arlo's disenchantment with the hippie scene.  Ray and Alice's infidelity is sad & disturbing because that's what free love really looks like; the funeral is unenjoyable because it's just not fun when your friends die of overdoses.  I think these filmmakers would agree with your assessment of the essential ugliness and self-centeredness of cliques like the Alice's Restaurant crew.

At the end of the movie, Arlo & his girlfriend leave, angering his hosts at the decommissioned church.  Ray & his ilk don't want to admit that their lifestyle is sour; Arlo's departure isolates them and gives them a dose of reality.  The film's pacing is slow, certainly, but it manages to be at once harshly realistic and a little wistful. . . it documents the spirit of the times, and that's why I think it's a good movie.
Re: Alice's Restaurant
Reply #6. Posted on June 16, 2008, 10:18:11 AM by YODAR
My take from this flick was: here was Woody, dying of Huntington's disease which was an inherited condition. And here was Arlo and the big question "Would he get it too?" Was Arlo looking at the face of his own death? (This was before DNA testing)
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