Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Teeth, Teeth And Yet More Teeth
I haven’t given much thought to films directed by Paul Mazursky for a while, even though there are several I like and I always enjoy his onscreen appearances. I’ve seen him around town every once in a while through the years and many years ago I even did several days of work on the crew of SCENES FROM A MALL (not one of his best—I’d say it’s one of the longest films ever made that runs under 90 minutes). His films didn’t all get bad, but they are extremely locked into the time they were made in which has for better or worse affected the shelf life of his reputation. Several of them were hits—hell, several of them were big hits at the time--but by a certain point it looked like the flops caught up with him and there havn’t been too many signs of him in recent years aside from acting gigs like a role as one of Mel Brooks’ cohorts on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Does anyone know if he still hangs out at the Farmers’ Market every morning? I should try to find out sometime.
The reason I bring all this up is because I finally took a look at 1968's I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS!, one of those films I’ve been meaning to see over the years. All I ever really knew about it was that it involved hippies and pot brownies, not to mention that it starred Peter Sellers. Paul Mazursky co-wrote the film with then-partner Larry Tucker (they had worked on THE MONKEES together) and would direct BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE just a year later. ALICE B. TOKLAS! isn’t really his film—it was directed by Hy Averback whose credits mostly consist of a long list of TV shows--but it feels like maybe it should have been and my recollections of his own thematic preoccupations were what kept coming to mind while watching it.
Harold Fine (Peter Sellers) is an uptight 35 year-old Los Angeles lawyer, a self-professed “square” who is being badgered into marriage by longtime girlfriend Joyce (Joyce Van Patten). A series of circumstances involving his parents (Jo Van Fleet and Salem Ludwig), his hippie brother (David Arkin, “I can remember when people just had jobs,” in THE LONG GOODBYE) and a hippie girl named Nancy (Leigh Taylor Young, also in THE BIG BOUNCE and SOYLENT GREEN and, seriously, Yowza) leads to him trying some of Nancy’s pot brownies, recipe by Alice B. Toklas. The revelations he receives from the experience leads to him dropping out, becoming a hippie and shacking up with Nancy.
Sometimes films become dated. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There once was a decade known as the sixties and though I wasn’t around at the time it seems that there were people known as hippies, so it’s not like there should be anything wrong with a movie that has them. I can’t comment in any way on the accuracy of the lifestyle presented here, but the simple fact that the movie presents it does not necessarily mean that the film is automatically useless in this day and age. What is slightly problematic is when the film style seems to be trying to hard to be “mod” as well as jokes involving overprotective Jewish mothers and Mexican families crammed into tiny cars complete with chickens. Those are the kinds of gimmicks and stereotypes that date something like this in a bad way. But more important than anything in this film is the basic idea of a man caught between the world he is trying to find a place for himself in and the person who he is inside, not only a universal notion with or without hippies, but a recurring theme in films that Paul Mazursky has made throughout his long career—looking over his filmography from BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE to DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS to even the forgotten Danny Aiello comedy THE PICKLE most of them seem to focus on that in one way or another. There’s definitely an idea that has potential in ALICE B. TOKLAS!, but ultimately the movie seems more interested in the pot brownies and Sellers dressing up as a hippie than in presenting an intricate character study or even any really cutting satire. Stylistically it feels caught between the standard approach of a sixties romantic comedy and this new tone the script was going for. At least it’s better than a few other comedies from the period like A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN and there’s a story in there somewhere if you look hard enough but it feels overwhelmed by an inconsistent approach and a continued feeling that it’s going more for the jokes (although there’s a very good one involving Andy Warhol) and wacky behavior at the expense of character. I enjoyed watching I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS, partly because I enjoy Peter Sellers and looking at L.A. in the sixties but I kept wondering about what was buried underneath all the randomness that seemed to be trying to get out. The plotting is extremely loose, almost nonexistent at times and when Sellers begins to question his hippie lifestyle it just feels arbitrary, like he was told it’s time to start wrapping things up. Late in the film is a sequence where a bunch of people appear in his apartment all at once and all I could think was that it wouldn’t be too long in real life before home invasions involving hippies weren’t all that funny. By a certain point near the end, it felt like the movie was collapsing in on itself though for all I know that may have been the point. As it is, I wasn’t entirely sure what the movie was trying to say about being caught between these two lifestyles and I couldn’t tell if the end was unsatisfying, a cheat, a cop-out, a post-production salvage or barely even an ending at all.
Some of the tonal issues may have to do with Peter Sellers, not that I have any real issues with his performance. There’s no way I can say that he’s miscast as a Jew from Boyle Heights, not when he plays an Indian named Hrundi V. Bakshi in THE PARTY, one of my favorite films of all time. Maybe it’s not entirely convincing on a realistic level but Sellers seems fully committed all the way through, especially compared to something like his similar look in CASINO ROYALE and he helps get this film through some of its dry patches. But no matter how great it is to see a Peter Sellers performance it’s still one of several things about the movie that made me imagine the more personal version that would have been directed by Mazursky and starring maybe Elliott Gould, who would work with the director only a year later. We do get the always welcome Herb Edelman as his best friend and Joyce Van Patten manages to seem more interesting than the scenes she’s given to play. Leigh Taylor Young is extremely, mind-bogglingly fetching, convincingly floating her way through her scenes and pulling off the small bits of complexity that she’s given in the later scenes.
It’s possible that I’m overthinking all this since I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS! is, after all, a Peter Sellers comedy that exists now as a time capsule and probably was already one soon after it was first released. It’s enjoyable enough with a lot of good L.A. location footage, particularly on the Sunset Strip, but it still feels like a collision of the personal and the mod that doesn’t fully gel. It has a lead who at one point earnestly states, “You don’t know me…I don’t know me,” but it’s more interested in the wacky hippie antics that undermine such moments. It’s not totally satisfying, but a lot of it is still fun while it lasts as well as interesting in how it anticipates films that Paul Mazursky would eventually get to direct. And for those who have seen it and are wondering—No, I still haven’t been able to get that damn theme song out of my head.