Friday, February 11, 2011

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968) — Making a hash of it

Here's the second in a brief survey of Peter Sellers films I revisited while recently laid up with the flu. Sticking with a chronological order here, this one follows The Party by six months, opening in October 1968.

For Sellers fans interested in score-keeping the up-and-down work during his late-'60s blue period, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas isn't as charming or pleasant as The Party. On the other hand, it's not as smugly charmless as The Magic Christian ('69) or as dreary as Hoffman ('70), both of which I'll get to next.

This movie is, in fact, hardly there at all. As in The Bobo ('67) or There's a Girl in My Soup ('70), Sellers stars in a romantic comedy that's as insubstantial as smoke. Sweetly scented, legally questionable smoke in this case, but that's where its one overarching joke comes from.

As the insufferably cutesy trailer below suggests, for a movie that takes its title from the Haight-Ashbury scene's recipe for marijuana brownies, ILYABT doesn't aim to be anything near a "counterculture" experience. Rather, it's conventional and derivative and middlebrow enough to fall back on broad stereotypes of what audiences in Omaha thought of the "hippie movement." For Sellers completists and fans of that Sgt. Pepper-by-way-of-The Monkees vibe, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas is a quaint watch-it-once experience.

Sellers plays Harold Fine, an L.A. lawyer and 9-to-5 square. Harold lives his bourgeois, buttoned-down, asthmatic life by unenthusiastically going through the motions. That includes a loveless sex life with his secretary/fiancée (Joyce Van Patten) who desires nothing more than a wedding. Strained TV sitcom circumstances put Harold behind the wheel of a "psychedelic" station wagon and in the company of his brother Herbie (David Arkin), a hippie who freaks out the squares at a Jewish funeral by arriving in traditional Hopi burial paint and feathers.

This is the stronger, funnier half of the movie, with Sellers — a sui generis performer no matter the material — again nailing a character at odds with the world around him.

But when he meets lovely Venice Beach hippie chick Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), Harold and the movie both spin off into less engaging directions. Not that Taylor-Young is at any fault. On the contrary, she's delightful, not to mention a leggy beauty in that fringed miniskirt revealing the butterfly tattoo positioned enticingly there. (She earned a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Newcomer.")

It's just that when free-spirit Nancy draws out Harold's repressed grooviness in bed and elsewhere, he tunes in and drops out, kicks off his inhibitions along with his Florsheim wingtips, exchanges his suit and tie for love beads and tie-dye, and grows his hair to his shoulders within the span of one jump cut.

Yes, he's dropping his outer squaresville facade to free his inner vibes, and probably getting the best sex of his life in the bargain, so more power to him, I say. Presumably we're intended to groove along with him vicariously, empathizing perhaps with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of this middle-aged neo-hippie's escape from the Establishment's constricting, uptight enforced propriety.

If only. As set up and played out here, way too early in the film Harold's transformation ultimately strikes us less as far-out liberation than as a pathetic, occasionally embarrassing nervous breakdown.

"I've got pot, I've got acid, I've got LSD cubes," he kvetches when Nancy starts questioning his dedication to his newfound hippitude. "I'm probably the hippest guy around here. I'm so hip, it hurts!"

And he's right, it does.

The screenplay by Larry Tucker and Paul Mazursky (agreeably directed by TV veteran Hy Averback) delivers some humorous moments; for instance, the pipe-smoking Man In The Gray Flannel Suit buying a swinging minidress for himself.

Too often, though, it leans on trite comedy traditions by trucking in stereotypes across the board — Harold's "oy vey!" Jewish mother (Jo Van Fleet) and her cronies; the family of 11 Mexicans squeezed into one car and claiming identical neckbrace injuries; the easy conventions of portraying flower-child hippiedom; Van Patten's grating one-note role (she does her best, considering); the older generation stifled by not being "with it"....

Even in '68 there must have been little that was challenging or illuminating here, and with the Summer of Love long done and gone the movie probably felt retro the day it premiered. It opened just two months after the riot-rocked 1968 Democratic Convention, so I wonder if the national mood, post-"Chicago Seven," was an additional downer in the face of such an innocuous little comedy. If Abbie Hoffman ever saw it, I bet he could tell that its director was at the same time delivering The Flying Nun to his television.

It can go without saying that the film hasn't aged well since. Its best-remembered scene, in which pre-hip Harold accidentally serves his parents a batch of Nancy's pot brownies, has lost any comedic currency in our age of That '70s Show in perpetual reruns.

Nonetheless, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas is just guilelessly entertaining enough to be worth a look. Despite the rote banalities at its edges, at its center Sellers gives his all to the material, and Leigh Taylor-Young is as appealing as a fresh-plucked peach.

Moreover, and critically important in my book, the movie comes with a gentle soul. It gives the era's youth counterculture a sympathetic, even affectionate shake. Although the hippies are portrayed with elementary sitcom strokes, ILYABT doesn't condescend or propagandize by casting them as conservative-cliché "dirty freaks" or agitprop no-goodniks. They're just good-hearted, decent folks trying their best to find their own way in the world, just like the rest of us. Similarly, mainstream society is not held up as either a faultless model lifestyle or some monolithic enemy that only Timothy Leary's flower-power acolytes can redeem.

This nonpartisan middle-of-the-road approach almost pays off in the final scenes, when Harold groks the hollowness of both hippiedom's excesses and the Establishment's straitjacketing conformity. This drives a fadeout that's a flat-footed steal from The Graduate, but it was probably a sincere one.

In Elmer Bernstein's perfunctory score we recognize glimpses of the maestro's signature orchestration amid the sitar patchouli oil; however, let's assume that the twee theme song by Harpers Bizarre, which incessantly repeats the movie's title like the mantra of an Up With People show choir, is not Mr. Bernstein's fault.

On Leigh Taylor-Young's web site, worth a look are her pages of photos and reminiscences from her experience of the movie's production.

Music: Joe Sample and Randy Crawford "Feeling Good"
Near at hand: David Delamare's Jabberwocky