"Never in the history of the world," Lewis Lapham once wrote, "have so many people been so rich; never in the history of the world have so many of those same people felt themselves so poor." This is certainly true of the main character in Woody Allen's Alice. Once again the writer/director explores questions of meaning and purpose that haunt modern day Americans who have an abundance of material possessions but a lack of inner riches.
In her best and most rounded screen performance to date, Mia Farrow plays Alice, a wealthy and pampered New Yorker who lives on the upper East Side with her stockbroker husband Doug (William Hurt) and their two children. Despite the ministrations of a housekeeper, a cook, a nanny, and a personal trainer, Alice is troubled by back pains. She takes the advice of a friend and goes to see Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), a chain-smoking Chinatown doctor who practices acupuncture and herbal medicine. He quickly and wisely realizes that her troubles are not physical but psychological. Alice, you see, is a lapsed Catholic who has lost touch with her feelings and spiritual impulses.
Dr. Yang gives her a series of herbal potions that magically enable her to begin a journey of self-discovery. One of them transforms her from a shy wife of 16 years into a seductress who whispers erotic suggestions in the ear of Joe (Joe Mantegna), a divorced father she meets at her children's school. Another potion summons the ghost of her first love (Alec Baldwin) who whisks her off for a flight over Manhattan and a review of her romantic history. A third enables her to become invisible and witness her husband's infidelity and hear some female friends' true opinions of her.
At one point in this engaging moral fairy tale, Alice admits, "My feelings are too scary. I never had these feelings before." The path to self-knowledge includes close encounters with a patronizing friend (Cybil Shepherd) who has risen to success in the television industry, with her lawyer sister (Blythe Danner) who can't abide slavery to externals, and with her deceased mother (Gwen Verdon), a failed actress who drowned her sorrows in alcohol.
In the end, Alice reconnects with the spirituality of her childhood and the need to sacrifice self in service of others. While many critics have made light of this turn at the end of the film, it will seem perfectly natural to those who have come face-to-face with the emptiness of their lives and the splits between mind, body, and soul.
Francine du Plessix Gray, writing about spiritual seekers, gave us a good summary of the new directions that become apparent at the end of Alice: "They are incapable of segregating flesh from spirit, action from principle, their suffering from that of other humans . . . The subtlest lesson they offer is that genuine spirituality entails a radical lack of self-pity, a deep gratitude for whatever little joy is ours, a constant awareness of the needs and griefs of those even more deprived than we."