Alice (Mia Farrow) is a Manhattan housewife, who enjoys the services of everything a well-to-do lifestyle can bring her: a rich husband (William Hurt), two children in the best school available, all the pampering she could ever want, a maid to wait on her... so why is she so unhappy? She thinks it is down to her back pain which is causing her distracting trouble, and her friends keep suggesting Alice visit an expert to cure her, though as this man is Doctor Yang (Keye Luke), a practitioner of arcane remedies in Chinatown, she is sceptical that he would be right for her. But she is still in pain, and making things worse is that while she loves her husband, he's too busy working to attend to her, and there's a musician single father at the school, Joe (Joe Mantegna), who looks very attractive...
Writer and director Woody Allen had enjoyed a very good nineteen-eighties, ending it with the much acclaimed Crimes and Misdemeanours, so the hopes were high for his first film of the nineties. What nobody was anticipating was Alice, a lightweight retread of Federico Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits set in his accustomed New York City location and starring his then-romantic partner Farrow, who had become a fixture of his work since they had fallen in love, but not everyone was certain if they were not wearing out their welcome by this, another collaboration that came across as Allen doing her a favour by casting her in the lead when other filmmakers had more or less lost interest in her as a leading lady.
Of course, nobody could have expected how that relationship would end, and end it did shortly after in bitter acrimony and wild accusations that have still never been entirely settled, which lends an odd cast to this in that you will be aware Allen was looking kindly on Farrow for the duration of this, yet presumably a couple of years later would have been happy never to hear her name ever again, and vice versa. Watching her meander her way through a very mild borrowing of other artists' themes was not exactly exciting, even if it was imbued with the regular Allen obsession with self-improvement through therapy, as the entire narrative was the equivalent of a lengthy session in the psychiatrist's chair for the heroine.
Only she did not get up to anything as clichéd as lying on a couch and doing a spot of regression cure, she did go to see Doctor Yang (Luke's final role and a nice one to go out on after such a long career) and he began placing her on mystical treatments that were herb-based rather than acupuncture as Alice was expecting. Said herbs had an effect that was reminiscent of the fantasy movie trappings of the nineteen-thirties, placing her in a series of quirky scenes where she would, for instance, be able to converse with the ghost of a former boyfriend (Alex Baldwin) to see where she went wrong with that connection, or suddenly be boosted in confidence and instead of making meek small talk with Joe she went on the attack, aggressively flirting with him to ensure he was aware she was interested.
Of course, the next time they meet she is back to her "Miss Mouse" persona as her friends call her behind her back, but this seems to have done the trick and opened up the possibilities of an affair, the main issue with Alice not being a bad back, as she thought, but heartache, as Doctor Yang informs her. Unfortunately, because she cannot wholly reform until the close of the film there was an awful lot of dithering on her part, and that grew wearing when there was no strong personality to carry the plot, merely a half formed one that was growing in power and certainty, yet extremely slowly to give Allen the chance to explore her psyche in the manner a shrink might do with a patient. The most memorable sequence, aside from a funny/nightmarish bit where love potion herbs get into the wrong hands, was where Alice and Joe become invisible and wander the streets, she eavesdropping on her pals and he, rather creepily, entering a changing room where supermodel Elle MacPherson is trying on clothes which changes your perception of him, not for the good either. As a self-improvement lesson it was fair, but as a movie, small beer.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.