Four decades after its theatrical release, director Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant displays a scruffy, ramshackle authenticity missing from polished contemporary 1960s homages such as Across the Universe. In 1969, Penn followed his innovative hit Bonnie and Clyde with an adaptation of Arlo Guthrie’s popular song “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” The film succeeds best with its quasi-documentary approach that captures the counterculture’s “do your own thing” ethos as well as its courage in the face of conformist hostility and pro-Vietnam War sentiment.
Alice’s Restaurant doesn’t, however, live up to the original song's charm. In the 18-minute “talking blues,” Guthrie spins yarns about oppressive small-town cops and the New York draft board, unified by the comforting chorus, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.” In the film, Guthrie plays himself, and the best scenes simply trail him as he hitchhikes, crashes at bohemian apartments, casually woos women and plays music. The tension of the times erupts when a friend returns from ’Nam missing a hand, or small-town bullies taunt Guthrie at a diner.
Not to sound like one of the nasty townies, but Guthrie, with his long hair and soft-spoken, waifish demeanor, rather resembles Jo from Little Women. He serves mostly as a drifting observer to the story, and the plot’s friction comes when friends Ray and Alice (James Broderick and Pat Quinn) buy a deconsecrated church and convert it into a loosey-goosey commune in Stockbridge, Mass. Their attempt to create a hippie community finds complications when troubled, drug-addicted Shelly (Michael McClanathan) gets out of Bellevue and cultivates a charged a romantic triangle in the free-love atmosphere. The film shifts to melancholy tones when Guthrie visits the deathbed of father, folk singer Woody Guthrie (awkwardly played by actor Joseph Boley). At one point, the son joins folkie Pete Seeger (as himself) to serenade the elder Guthrie.
Penn used many nonprofessional actors and real locations for Alice’s Restaurant, including Ray and Alice’s original church and officer William Obanhein, who plays himself as Guthrie’s nemesis Officer Obie. The main incidents from the song occur in the film’s second hour, accompanied by Guthrie’s singing narration, but the conceit doesn’t really work and botches the trial scene's punchline.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about Alice’s Restaurant is how little singing Guthrie actually does. He frequently jams on his guitar, but either for short tunes or in support of others. He almost never takes the spotlight as a singer, which makes the film rather like watching 8 Mile with Eminem’s rap numbers cut out. In spite of itself, Alice’s Restaurant suggests that it’s not the singer but the song, and it makes you want to lay Guthrie’s original LP down on an old turntable.