“Crazy Heart”

Everyone seems to agree that Jeff Bridges is awesome. This is probably due to his iconic performance as the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” I agree with everyone else regarding the Dude, but otherwise I don’t have much experience with him. I can’t really picture him in anything but a bathrobe. And here I am with “Crazy Heart,” his supposed tour de force. The performance is good, I’ll give him that. But the movie as a whole?

“Crazy Heart” is conventional just about all the way around. It’s a standard drama without any unpredictable elements. The protagonist is a self-destructive former country star, spiraling downward. He’s coasting on past fame, but he’s near the end of his line. He wakes up in the morning and brushes his teeth with whiskey. At night, he prematurely exits the stage through the back curtain to throw up.

Long movie short: he meets a charming young reporter with a cute dimpled son. They fall deeply in love. He keeps swigging whiskey in the bathroom. Eventually, he screws things up bad enough to lose her. Then he goes clean, to the relief of everyone.

Maybe if I liked country music more than I do – none at the moment – I would like the movie more. But the film felt like a twenty-million dollar Hallmark movie. The performances were good, but not great. I frankly don’t know why Jeff Bridges’ acting was so heavily lauded in this case. He was exceedingly apt in the role, but I don’t find it much of a stretch for such a seasoned actor. All he had to do was squint, talk with a cigarette-tinged growl, act drunk, and be good with kids.I suppose he also had to sing and stuff, but isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you’re playing a country singer? We shouldn’t set the precedent of giving an Oscar to every actor who showcases some range. At least Jamie Foxx was doing a dead-on impersonation in “Ray.”

I’ve seen this movie many times before. Just in a different costume. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t get the girl, but he stays clean! He regains his dignity!  And the movie’s big song, “Crazy Heart,” plays on the soundtrack for the severalth time as the credits roll.

“Tommy Boy”

Certain peculiar kinds of genius can transcend genre mediocrity. “Tommy Boy,” a thoroughly mediocre (in concept) idea from Lorne Michaels and the SNL team, gains immortality simply because Chris Farley is in it. He is so damn funny, in practically everything he does, that all the filmmakers need to do is put him in appropriate situations. Give Farley an excuse to go apeshit and he will, hilariously.

Give him a small jacket, and he’ll sing a funny song and snap the jacket in half. Give him a mechanical hook, and he’ll perform karate moves on it until he falls over. His motor never runs out.

The film treads water in convention: bad sexual puns, a glowering villain, and a plot you can see coming a mile away. But Chris Farley lights the screen on fire. He turns countless dull jokes into chuckles. He is an exuberant entertainer. Even his laugh, a giddy cresting yelp, makes me fold in amusement. Hanging out with him in real life must have been impossible.

“Risky Business”

Risky Business” is a blueprint for teen sex comedies, and as such, it is appropriately sweet. The parents go out of town, and the son gets ambitious about enjoying the house while they’re gone. He goes too far, of course, and spends the last bit of the movie racing around trying to fix everything before they get home. Somehow, everything goes perfectly right for him, and by the end of the movie, his life is a whole lot better than when we started. He even gets the girl – a prostitute – although for the sake of the romantic aspect, the movie downplays her occupation. For all intents and purposes, she’s just a “girl next door” type who happens to be a call girl. She falls for him just as readily as he falls for her. And of course, she’s beautiful.

The movie is light-hearted and innocent, about as much as is possible for a movie that involves a giant for-profit sex party featuring a bevy of prostitutes and their high school-age customers. The crude jokes are just germs of cruder jokes to come (in movies like “American Pie”), and by today’s standards, they are essentially PG.  There’s plenty of language, but it’s used as a youthful freedom. The characters speak the F word because their parents aren’t around.

“Risky Business” makes it seem as if it’s genuinely fun to make a ninety-minute sitcom about a high-school boy. It pretty well typifies a feel-good movie. Every loose end gets tied, and everything goes as right as it possibly could have. I’d love to see the dark comedy version of this, where the boy gets a couple of STDs, the pimp cracks his skull with a baseball bat, and his parents ground him for the summer when they find out what happened. But this version, the fairy tale version, is pretty enjoyable as well.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

This 2007 thriller was Sydney Lumet’s last film. Lumet is most notable for directing, in consecutive years, the masterpieces “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network.” The latter won best picture in 1976.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Mr. Hawke is extremely good, in the most important role in the film. It concerns a small-time diamond heist, which the pair of brothers attempt to pull off on their own parents’ store. Of course, plenty goes wrong. Lumet tells the story in pieces, and he does so in a pretty straightforward manner. What results is a lucid puzzle, which comes together slowly and without making the viewer work.

The film isn’t anything spectacular, by any means, but it’s an excellent waste of time. In the end, that’s all we can ask of a movie, right?

p.s. Marisa Tomei is in it. This fact cannot possibly be construed as a bad thing.

Thoughts I had while watching “Heat”

-Michael Mann is a people’s champion. He’s a great filmmaker, but he operates strictly within the confines of Hollywood. Plenty of thrills, plenty of melodrama. He makes movies, not films.

-Al Pacino is great, I get it. But my god, can he over-act. De Niro, to contrast, is not quite the same scenery-chewer.

-Certain movies couldn’t possibly be too long. “Heat” is one of them. It’s 172 minutes, sure, but it crackles along like a tv show.

-Romantic subplots are the bane of my existence.

-Natalie Portman is a handsome lass.

-After seeing “Heat” and “Collateral,” I’m convinced that mr. Mann is an LA director. He really relishes the glitz and the sprawl, and these movies reflect that.

-mr. Mann has used the same score for every one of his movies that I’ve seen. It sort of rocks, but it’s very predictable. This is one reason why I say “he makes movies, not films.”

-Val Kilmer has deliciously pouty lips.

-Although “Heat” is famous for being the first movie with a De Niro/Pacino scene, I prefer to consider “Godfather II” that movie. They don’t appear together, but they do play father and son. (Albeit in different eras, via flashback). What could be more intimate than that? Plus, as much as I’m enjoying “Heat,” it’s not quite as good as “Godfather II,” I don’t think.

-Jeez, I’m only halfway through. Let’s see if I revise my claim that it couldn’t possibly go on too long. I can see romantic subplots coming to fruition on the horizon…

The Many Quirks and Flourishes of Brian De Palma: Pyrotechnics

I’ve been watching a lot of Brian De Palma films recently. As a brief summary of his work, let me say: he is a technical master. He is extremely adept at manipulating the visual and aural aspects of film to create a heavily sensory viewing experience. Unfortunately, he also has plenty of faults. He relies on genre in nearly every instance, and so his films often end up resembling glorified genre entries rather than the works of a true auteur.

I will be posting on various aspects of his work as a director, mostly focusing on his work in the early 80’s, when he seemed most comfortable as a filmmaker. He had not yet embarked on grandiose projects like “The Untouchables,” and he was content being a striking new voice, churning the Hollywood mill in his own subtly unique ways. In the genre he most frequently operated within during this time – the thriller – he had carte blanche to do whatever he felt with the medium. If the object of a film was to thrill, he was eminently capable of doing so, whether or not the thrills were organically generated by a compelling plot or character study. Very often, he generated thrills through trickery of visual style and plot circuitousness.

In his originality, De Palma was strangely predictable. Many of his plots were Hitchcockian, and he worked largely in archetypes when it came to his characters. Some of the aspects of what is generally considered “good” filmmaking – character development, lucidity, dialogue – De Palma ignored in favor of unrelenting flashiness and cinematic bravura. Over a series of posts, I will characterize De Palma as a director during this period in the 80’s.

Pyrotechnics:

With his unabashed interest in thrilling us, De Palma was happy to include external forces to heighten the mood. Examples include:

“Carrie”: The climax features the conflagration of a prom dance. De Palma bathes the entire frame in red and orange; first, pig’s blood pours over Carrie, and then she starts using her mental telepathy to ruin everyone else’s party. Using her mind, she slams the shutters shut, and sparks a blaze that encompasses the entire school gym where the scene takes place. When she retreats to her home, her mother, who has been hounding Carrie zealously throughout the film from her frighteningly pious matriarchal perch, attacks Carrie once again. Carrie causes the entire house to cave in, killing herself and her mother.

“Dressed to Kill”: The climax takes place in a psychiatrist’s office during a thunderstorm. This scene is notable for the lightning, which is constantly lighting up the faces of the performers at this climactic moment. It’s merely a visual flourish, rather than an all-out intrusion of the environment into the plot (as in “Carrie”), but it is notable nonetheless.

“Blow Out”: The climax takes place during a Liberty Day parade in Philadelphia, with the ultimate thrill located on a platform directly beneath the fireworks as they ignite. John Travolta’s face is lit up by the fireworks, as he murders the psycho and then discovers that his lady crush, played by Nancy Allen, is already dead. The shot of Travolta’s illuminated face, against the backdrop of an American flag, is a triumph.

 

In these examples, De Palma imposes large-scale set pieces into each film with the simple intention of heightening the excitement. While this makes for some memorably explosive conclusions, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s inserting these pieces artificially, to intensify the mood. One gets the feeling that, because he is relying so much on these effects, he perhaps feels insecure about his inability to craft a genuinely moving film without these pyrotechnics.

On the other hand, De Palma clearly enjoys the art of filmmaking so much, and exercises such a bizarre artistic muscle in making films, that we should just be happy for his daring. We watch movies to get tricked anyway – tricked into feeling emotions that aren’t really there – so who cares if De Palma exercises such trickery in full view of the audience, and with relish towards every precious external detail of his films?

During De Palma’s more conventional years, he had to abandon his unabashed nerve. In “Scarface,” for example, he wasn’t going to get away with tossing a random happenstance into the plot just for visual effect. This is what I love about this particular phase of his career: despite the inherent limitations of the genre of “thriller,” De Palma created some truly kinetic, visceral films. They are among the most technically interesting films I have ever seen, and despite their paucity of substance, they are largely delightful.

A comparison: “Last Tango in Paris” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”

“Last Tango in Paris” is a straightforward case of a film that has aged poorly. In this instance, its potency has flattened with age. When it came out, it was a brutal, sexually explicit film, and it pushed the frontier of sexual depictions in film. As a result of its superb acting – Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider – not to mention unobtrusive, molasses-slow direction, it had the stark appearance of real life. It was intimate drama, where its predecessors were decorative drapery. It was explicitly frank, in a time when nakedness of any kind, whether physical or emotional, was not common. It shocked a lot of people, and those who weren’t shocked had the following reaction: hey – this is real stuff right here. I can’t believe they dared.

Fast-forward forty years. We jaded filmgoers have seen everything. It is extremely hard to surprise me with the content of a film. I’ve seen all sorts of sex, and more acts of violence than I can count. Films like “Last Tango in Paris” can have an effect on me, but usually only when they’re taken to the emotional extreme, as in “Magnolia,” and Lars Von Trier’s films. So when I went to “Last Tango in Paris” with my brother, at a nook of a theater called The Grand Illusion, the film didn’t grab me. The bumpy seats took precedent over the love story. I knew this tale would turn sour and melancholy; there wasn’t one single moment that turned my outlook sunny. Not one single laugh, not one snappy soundtrack selection. Just two people, emotionally flagellating themselves and each other. I can picture people my age back in 1972, seeing this movie and being blown away. But I wasn’t.

In my mental image of film history, “2001: A Space Odyssey” moves in the opposite direction as “Last Tango in Paris.” Undoubtedly, it was a stunning achievement when it came out in 1968. But it moves me even more in retrospect. Movies that came in its wake – Star Wars, for example – were not any more technically grand. Stanley Kubrick, over 40 years ago, made a movie that still sparkles today.

Even in the prehistoric scenes, where Kubrick used painted backdrops for the horizon, the effect is seamless. They horizons are fake, but so artfully done that it doesn’t matter. There is a swooping grandeur to the film; it spans existence, and not cheaply, but with the execution to match its ambition. The scenes with Neanderthals are close up and real, and they document mankind’s genesis, somehow without being trite. The apes whoop and swing bones, but even though they’re just actors in suits, they stick in my memory. No film glimpses prehistory, nor bridges between it and the present and future, as does Kubrick’s “2001.”

The middle portion of “2001” pushes outward to space, and details mankind’s attempt to conquer it. The hallucinatory end splashes esoterically onto the screen: a fitting ending for a film that has attempted to connect the dots of humanity. “2001” is a big, bold film, a philosopher’s bright ordered dream. As we stumble over our follies, it will only seem truer, and more prophetic. Its ambiguity (and even the possibility that Kubrick wasn’t trying to say anything at all) oddly befits a film of such visual and thematic ambition. As cinema plods along, “2001” will retain its value. Even if the film’s special effects become aged. Which, 42 years later, hasn’t happened yet.

“After Hours”

 

Every time Martin Scorsese blows my mind anew, I feel inclined to write about it. So it would be remiss of me not to mention when he disappoints. “After Hours,” a 1985 comedy, did just that. It’s possible I started it at the wrong time, during a groggy morning or a fading eve when I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I can’t quite remember what mood I was in when I watched it. But regardless, it disappointed me. And I’m not that person who falls in love with an artist, and then sits around waiting for him or her to do something wrong so that I can thumb my nose. When I find an artist I love, I defend that someone fiercely, although without delusion. I was fully prepared to love “After Hours,” but for once, Scorsese let me down.

The first disappointment is the actors. Scorsese always has worked with marquee actors, whether De Niro, Ellen Burstyn, Keitel, or DiCaprio. As such, I am perplexed by his choice of Griffin Dunne in the title role. At first sight, the film’s premise supports his decision to select an actor of little to no glamorous power. The plot concerns an ordinary man whom fate keeps feeding curveballs throughout a random night in New York. There isn’t much characterization; instead, the caprices of fate pounce on him, spinning the tale in unforeseen directions. Theoretically, a bland actor could execute such a role, because it requires so little in the way of magnetism as a leading man. A cipher would suffice. But that doesn’t mean that the film wouldn’t benefit from an actor of more esteem. Griffin Dunne is sort of a lame duck – even as an ordinary fellow, he can’t be extraordinary. Any of a dozen A-list 80’s actors could have played this role far better than he did.

I hesitate to blame this on Griffin Dunne, however. Despite the film’s madcap premise, it is rigid. It bounces from place to place as increasingly crazy things transpire. But within each vignette, there is none of that energy that, on the storyboard, keeps he plot moving. Scorsese hasn’t brought the proper attitude to the film, I fear. He controls it too tightly: concerned with maintaining the trappings of the type of film he wants to make, he doesn’t actually make the film with the same silliness that he wants it to possess. The actors, therefore, are acting out muted dreams, which don’t contain the panache of surreality that the film should have.

Near the beginning of the film, Scosese goes on a brief tangent with the camera, chasing a wandering twenty-dollar bill as it exits a cab window in melancholy swoops. Set to striking music, the interlude is ostensibly a grand departure, and a flight from the structure of the film. It is a dreamy shot, in the same way that the film is also detached and sleepy. It is also the first free, loose moment in “After Hours.” In a rare Scorsese film that contains so few exuberant departures, the floating dollar bill stands out, and calls to attention the dearth of liveliness in the rest of the movie.

When there is an unexpected shot which breaks the rhythm of the film, that shot’s success relies on the rest of the film to support and enhance its power. To use an obvious example in Scorsese’s oeuvre, the abrupt and brutal fight scenes in “Raging Bull” might not have held such dramatic potency if their mates, the domestic scenes of the commonplace, hadn’t been so emotionally charged. They would have fallen awkwardly into the film, beautifully filmed but out of place in the context of the movie.

These touches in “After Hours” aren’t springing organically from the plot. When inspired, Scorsese’s flourishes emerge exuberantly from his films. The examples are abundant: every grandiose shot in “Goodfellas,” every brash soundtrack selection, feels like it was meant to be there. “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is so lively that each strange choice that Scorsese makes adds to the liveliness. “Raging Bull” is so damn kinetic that every intrusion (the fence between De Niro and Moriarty when they first meet; De Niro’s uncomfortable transition to the world of entertainment) merely adds to the feast. But the weird things in “After Hours” are incongruous. The things that happen to the protagonist, and the people he meets, push the trippiness further, but not deeper. Linda Fiorentino’s aloof sculptor, for example, is somewhat of a puzzle, but a sterile one. She’s not something to decipher; she’s merely an oddity, part of the parade.

Some performances, such as Teri Garr as a simultaneously flighty and clingy waitress, bring a certain spark. But this spark only serves to illuminate the dullness all around. It quickly becomes clear that Scorsese isn’t capable of generating comedy organically on a large scale. He needs world-class players to pull that off. I can’t help but compare “After Hours” to “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” In “Alice,” he had the personnel to make a great film and, being the supremely talented director that he is, he let things fall into place. He littered the film with conversations that didn’t pertain to the plot, and so the film resembled real life, only with luminous actors portraying you and me. In “After Hours,” manufacturing comedy from scratch, with a lame leading man and supporting players like Tommy Chong, proves too difficult for Scorsese.

I worry that I’m being too harsh. I suspect, after all, that if this movie hadn’t borne the “Scorsese” tag when I popped it into the DVD player, I might have enjoyed it more. The fact is, however, that I will never again watch a Martin Scorsese movie without being extremely aware of the fact that he directed it. This is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because I can be more perceptive to spotting the myriad subtleties he slides into his films. The technical proficiency will always be top-notch. (Even “After Hours,” obviously one of my least faves, is edited tightly and smartly.) It is a curse, however, because I cannot enjoy “After Hours” for what it may be: a good, but not great film. The reason I cannot enjoy it in such a manner is this: I’ve seen “Raging Bull.” Etcetera. I’ve even been adventurous enough to see “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which is a comparable outlier in his catalogue. But “Alice” was spontaneously poetic, and jazzy throughout. “After Hours” is proficient, and not much more. Something tells me that if Scorsese had handed his protagonist a handgun, the film would have sprung to life.

 

“The Social Network”

It’s always thrilling to watch extremely intelligent people at work. “Good Will Hunting,” for example, derived much of its drama from the notion that a genius could be tucked away unglamorously in a janitor’s job, just waiting to burst free from the chains of manual labor and start saving the world. It’s an easy subject: the human intellect, and the extraordinary things it is capable of. And it is easy for an audience to get behind the underdog, who can solve equations with the flick of a wrist but stumbles over words when a pretty girl bats her eyes at him.

The drama of “The Social Network” is built on this easy foundation. But it is far more ambitious than just that. It is complicated, with shades of grey aplenty. Its hero, Mark Zuckerberg, seems driven by jealousy and insecurity, rather than the blithe social unawareness of the usual downtrodden nerd. In the first scene his girlfriend, who has finally had enough of his angry superciliousness, quite justifiably dumps him. This rejection acts as a springboard for his furious pursuance of the idea of Facebook. As he builds the site, he is alternately conniving and self-righteous. His principal positive attribute is that he isn’t driven by money or social stature. He wants to show he’s as worthy as the jocks and the preppies, but not so as to gain clout of any kind. He doesn’t want to be popular, nor does he want women following him around. Near the end of the film, as Facebook reaches its millionth user, his employees go out to party and he stays seated at his desk, surrounded by the new offices’ vast emptiness.

The film takes a simple premise – underdog achieving unforeseen things – and makes it into exquisitely high drama. The script is tight and sharp. It seamlessly integrates flash-forwards to the two court cases that resulted from Facebook’s sudden international explosion. It shows the protagonist, now already fabulously wealthy, acting awkward and dismissive and vindictive, as he rebuts the claims of the lawyers across the table. This flash-forward never seems clunky as a narrative device; instead, it gives a glimpse into the rifts Zuckerberg has caused, and his (understandably) ballooning egotism.

Of course, the “small man makes it big” success story is the source of much of the drama. The film elaborates on the formula, however, with several lovely touches. First off, the script is downright marvelous. If it doesn’t win the Oscar, the whole system is broken. In broad but subtle brush strokes, it shows the influence of the information age, and its ability to cross boundaries. The film’s scope is big; it first spans Harvard’s campus, then it expands across to the West coast, and soon across the entire world. Without compromising its intimate view of several key characters, it gives a genuine sense of the bigness of Facebook, the excitement of its ascent, and its near-immediate global influence. And the central location – the meeting room, where lawyers and plaintiffs and Zuckerberg collide – holds the film together, and anchors the drama.

The performances are almost uniformly good. One single man plays the twins who sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea for a social network. This actor, Armie Hammer, isn’t so much a great actor as he is perfectly cast. He is enormous and Aryan, with a magnetically deep voice. As the script writes the twins, they come off as narrow-minded, and a bit entitled, but far from the villains they would have been in a film of lesser aspirations and diminished subtleties.

Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Zuckerberg. He doesn’t stretch very far from his usual manic portrayals. In “Zombieland” and Adventureland” both, he was nervous and vulnerable; here, he is still nervous, but he has shut himself up enough so as not to be vulnerable any longer. And again, with the help of a pitch-perfect script, Eisenberg doesn’t really need to stretch. He has been perfectly cast, and he doesn’t squander the opportunity.

The only off-key performance is by Justin Timberlake. And this may have been also the script’s doing. Timberlake’s character is Sean Parker: founder of Napster, entrepreneur, and drug enthusiast. He is a one-note playboy. He is there simply for the sake of dramatic tension, to move in and disrupt the relationship between Zuckerberg and his co-founder, Eduardo Saverin. He steps in, throwing money around and capitalizing on Zuckerberg’s insecurities, and it all seems too simple. The film otherwise avoids already-trodden soil, and it is disappointing to see such a disingenuously cinematic element tossed directly into the plot. I think this subplot could have been avoided entirely; this would have allowed more emphasis on the student life at Harvard, which seems underdeveloped. Considering that Facebook had its inception there, and Zuckerberg’s insecurities play out most dramatically amongst thousands of peers, more emphasis on his Harvard days might have made the film perfect.

“The Social Network” is replete with loving flourishes. The music, which is largely pulsating techno, is deep and layered, and heightens the drama without sounding superfluous or overly intense. This is no easy task for techno. There is also an abundance of beautiful camerawork; one scene in particular, a regatta the cheated twins attend in Europe, is especially memorable. I’ve frankly never seen anything like it. The scene is a rare example of dazzling, virtuoso filmmaking: abrupt and breathtaking.

All in all, the film is certainly the best new movie I’ve seen since “The Hurt Locker.” Various people have raised fusses about its authenticity, but these fusses are utterly inconsequential to the average filmgoer. Unless you are a family member of one of the main players, or simply cannot accept dramatization for what it is, you should see “The Social Network.” It’s a rare bird these days.

 

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

Martin Scorsese’s follow up to his breakthrough film “Mean Streets,” “Alice” is unlike any movie Scorsese has made. For starters, it primarily features women. At the center of the film is the relationship between Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, and her adolescent son. Their scenes are surprisingly real; they have an endearing relationship full of banter, and they seem more friends than a mother and son. All of this is held together by the son’s performance. He’s not marvelous or anything, but good child performances are rare, and if the actor hadn’t seemed genuine, the movie would have fallen apart.

“Alice,” however, is Ellen Burstyn’s movie. She won the Oscar in 1974 for her performance. She is very expressive; she gets angry a lot, and cries, and laughs, and yet manages to do so without going over the top. Her character is in a fragile state – her (boorish) husband has just died in a car accident – so her wild swings of mood are understandable. And Alice has been married her whole adult life, so we are witnessing her first growing pains as a full-blown adult. She has the added responsibility of a young son to look after. My friend Reid, with whom I watched the movie, commented that he quite disliked the protagonist. I found all of her follies understandable. She is dealing with freedom, which is obviously exhilarating, and as she comes out of her shell, she seems torn by the heightened freedom and her newly heightened responsibility.

The dialogue is excellent. I was hoping that Scorsese had written the script, but when I looked it up and saw that he hadn’t, it made sense. Scorsese is a visual director; he can create energy with his camera work, and coax marvelous performances out of his actors, but these are un-nuanced, almost brutish qualities in a director. I couldn’t see him writing dialogue with so much subtle humor. Nevertheless, he directed the movie – no small feat – and the dialogue is matched by swift, offbeat pacing that sets the tone of the movie perfectly.

The best portions of the movie take place in a diner, where Alice has taken a waitressing job. It’s a bizarre place, where the patrons are sometimes privy to the high drama of hot-blooded arguments, and hardly a day goes by without some form of liquid being spilled on a customer. One of Alice’s fellow waitresses is a lively tart who plays for tips; Alice hates her at first but soon succumbs to her magnetic personality. The other waitress is hilariously strange; she cries spontaneously, and says strange things, and drops plates by the dozen. I don’t know what inspired Scorsese to put her in the movie, but she’s a delight. It’s the best kind of humor: emotional slapstick.

It’s the same feeling I get when I see a strange bit of humanity in public. I was in a coffee shop the other day, and a dirty, possibly homeless man pushing a nice baby carriage entered the shop. He peered at the counter, where the sole employee had just disappeared into the back, and then took the half-and-half container and emptied it into the child’s bottle. After peering around a bit more, he exited. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. He seemed homeless, which was only confirmed by his needing to steal milk to feed the baby. And yet, the baby was in a nice new carriage. The only thing I could think of was that the man had just stolen the baby from under its mother’s nose, and then realized he didn’t have enough money for milk and needed to steal some. I probably should have called CPS or something, but I was too busy trying to understand what I’d witnessed.

This is how I felt watching the waitress Vera’s scenes in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” She lurks in the background, stumbling and mumbling, and spilling things everywhere. She’s always on the verge of tears. And it is pure delight to watch her life unfold. This was one of those comic performances so terrific that I have to assume it was unintentional.

Elsewhere, more normal things happen. There is a love interest, of course, and a conflict that threatens to keep the lovebirds apart. But Scorsese, for all of his technical flourishes, restrains himself when it comes to the drama. This was his strong point in the 70’s; even in “Raging Bull,” surely his most intensely dramatic film, the drama arises from the potency of the acting. It’s organic, and unrelated to any conceivable plot. In “Alice,” he never overstates things. Certain moments, like a dead-end subplot with a spontaneously violent Harvey Keitel, threaten to steal the film’s gravity. Scorsese keeps pulling back, however. He doesn’t let the plot get in the way of the actors. Even young Jodie Foster, who I would assume was on a short leash, gets the freedom to do what she wants, and she absolutely nails it. Her performance is right in line with the other performances, which are all surreally real.

As a result, when the climax arrives, it therefore feels more significant. Ellen Burstyn has brought Alice alive throughout the movie, so when the big kiss comes at the end, it has the emotional heft that larger, more ostensibly ambitious films don’t have.

In some ways it’s Scorsese’s most liberated film. I’d like to give him credit for orchestrating “Alice.” I think what really happened is this: he realized he was out of his element, and that he needed to loosen his grip on the action. I hate to pigeonhole him, but given his track record, it’s pretty obvious that he’s most comfortable working with men. His aesthetic hadn’t crystallized yet in 1974, but in “Mean Streets” he bared his teeth pretty viciously. Here, he realized that he had some truly lively actresses to work with, and he realized that with no lurking violent undertones, he needed to loosen the film. He let the actresses construct the pathos with their performances, and he edited it to feel jaunty, letting nothing linger too long on the screen. Thanks to a wonderful script, it all came together, and the result is quite a delight.

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