Despite admitting that she was scared of him in her never-ending quest to please him, thirty-five year old housewife and mother Alice Hyatt is devastated when her husband Donald is killed in an on the job traffic accident. With few job skills except that as a singer, Alice, along with her precocious eleven year old son Tommy, decides to move from their current home in Socorro, New Mexico to her home town of Monterrey, California, the only place she has ever felt happy. She plans on getting singing gigs along the way to earn money to get back to Monterrey by the end of the summer and the start of Tommy's school year. Alice's quest for a job at each stop leaves Tommy often to fend for himself, which may make Tommy even more precocious. His behavior is fostered by Alice, as their relationship is often more as trouble-making friends than mother and son. Alice's plans often do not end up as she envisions, especially as she is forced to take a waitressing job at Mel and Ruby's Diner in ... Written by
Ellen Burstyn could play a tree stump and make it interesting. She's one of the unsung heroes of post-studio cinema. At a time when meaty women's roles were becoming more and more scarce, Burstyn was fighting for and winning one great part after another. She's probably never been better than she is here, though she showed tremendous range in "Same Time, Next Year" and gave one of the most heartbreakingly harrowing performances I've ever seen as recently as 2000, in "Requiem for a Dream." Women's picture and Martin Scorsese are not two phrases that would seem to be tailor made for each other, but a terrific women's picture is exactly what Scorsese gives us with "Alice..." Though I hate using the term women's picture, as if men can't enjoy stories about women, or as if women's pictures are isolated from the rest of "real" movies. Actually and ironically, maybe it was Scorsese's penchant for the tough-guy milieu that made him so right for this film, because "Alice" doesn't suffer from the burn-your-bra self-righteousness of other women's lib movies of its era, like "Un Unmarried Woman." These other films ultimately feel phony, because they were created for the most part by men, who, however noble their intentions, simply didn't have an understanding for the material. But Scorsese gets the character of Alice, and Burstyn knows exactly what she's doing. So the conflict isn't between Alice and the male world, but between the Alice who doesn't have the confidence to be anything other than a doormat and the Alice who wants to make a life for herself on her own terms.
There are some hilarious scenes between Alice and her son in this film, most particularly the scenes of them driving to California (like when Alice calls him Hellen Keller because he keeps asking "what?" to everything she says). Also, a subplot about the evolving friendship between Alice and Flo (played by Diane Ladd) becomes one of the film's highlights, not in the least because both actresses handle it expertly.
This is a winner, and must be seen by anyone who thinks Scorses is out of his element anywhere but the mean streets of NYC.
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