by Cynthia Fuchs

Woody Allen's film opens with an erotic interlude between Alice (Mia Farrow) and Joe (Joe Mantegna). Set in a zoo exhibit, the scene refers ironically to the aquarium scene in Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai" in which the treacherous Rita Hayworth embraces Welles in front of the shark exhibit. Here occurs in the Penguin House.

Moments later we realize that this is Alice's fantasy: when she repeats it to her best friend at a posh beauty salon, she whispers, "I'm so ashamed of the way I feel."

This tentative confession establishes the film's concern with Alice's desire and guilt. An upper class New Yorker with an apparently perfect family and an overload of material comforts, the spiritually depleted Alice yearns for more. Here the focus shifts from Allen's usual deliberations on Jewish metaphysical angst to that of a lapsed Catholic. But Alice is relegated to the same role played by the protagonists of Allen's previous "woman" movies--"Hannah And Her Sisters", "September", and "Another Woman". She remains oppressed by her moral culpability and cultural limitations.

It turns out that Alice has met her dream lover at her kids' chic school. Joe is a divorced father whose artistic fervor (he's a jazz musician) and brooding eyes seem mysterious and titillating. "Lost" in a stifling marriage to the indifferent Doug (William Hurt), Alice seeks the help of a Chinese acupuncturist, Dr. Yang (Keye Luke). His prescription of various herbal potions allows her to come on to Joe, confer with her long-dead lover Eddie (Alec Baldwin), and become invisible.

The metaphor of Alice's invisibility is an apt one, for she is repressed to the point of emotional nonexistence. In the midst of her cosmopolitan affluence, the always exquisitely dressed Alice has denied her own needs. Trying to dig herself out of this self-sacrifical rut, Alice starts confessing her consumerist sins to people from her past, including her politically correct sister (Blythe Danner), and the romantically trenchcoated Eddie, who materializes in her apartment one late night.

Eddie advises her to let Joe "know how you feel." But her feelings consistently thwart her. Eddie takes Alice on a Peter Pan-like flight over New York City to a deserted amusement park, where they recall their youthful appetites and aspirations. But even as she agrees to pursue Joe, the film suggests that her grandly earnest ideals have long since become arcane, even quaint, impossibilities. Alice is trapped between self-delusions: Eddie's ghost is seductive but hardly relationship material, and her upscale Chosen Lifestyle is mocked as empty.

The film seems enchanted with its conventional moralizing, and along the way displays some alarming racism in its images of the enigmatic Oriental, smoking opium and speaking pidgin English (granted, this view of Dr. Yang is filtered through the eyes of the severely sheltered Alice). And while the film has moments of Allen's patented visual schtick and one-liners (when asked if she believes in ghosts, Alice answers, "Don't all Catholics?"), the comedy typically comes at her expense.

In an attempt to take control of her life, Alice decides to write. While Alice's trite story ideas underline her lack of experience, they also suggest that the joke's on her for thinking she can write because she was "good in English." A funny visit from her worldly muse (Bernadette Peters) makes Alice realize that she should write about her dead mother, because, as Peters says, "losses are much more interesting."

Alice's problem is that she hasn't suffered enough, even though she considers herself a martyr like her unhappy alcoholic mother. Predictably, the film delivers the suffering that will make Alice whole. When she becomes invisible, she watches Joe seduce his brainy, sexy, professionally successful ex-wife. Though alarmed, Alice initiates the affair with him, only to undergo major guilt pangs.

Later, they become invisible together and go to Alice's favorite dress shop. While Joe goes into a dressing room to watch a model disrobe, Alice overhears her supposed friends discussing her husband's habitual infidelity. Again invisible, she then watches Doug seduce a woman at his office party. All of the knowledge she gains while unseen is hurtful. On the other hand, when the invisible Joe listens in on his ex's therapy session, he realizes that she still loves him, information which helps him reorganize his life.

The all-too-banal lesson Alice learns is that self-sacrifice is indeed her lot. Her increasing obsession with Mother Teresa seems meant to be a comic revelation on the order of the Allen character's epiphany via the Marx Brothers in "Hannah". But hers is a disturbing self-realization, based in the notion that she can only be happy when playing a most traditional role. And this, as we know, is not surprising in Allen's corner of the world.

Copyright by Cynthia Fuchs. All rights reserved.

Women's Studies Film Reviews