#23 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Scorsese seemed to be following the path of a director determined to maintain his own voice in cinema but also understanding that he needed to work with producers at the same time. Mean Streets was purely an independent production eventually picked up by Warner Brothers. His next film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was purely a studio production driven by Ellen Burstyn’s love for the script and desire to help an up and coming director. This would never fall under Scorsese’s films that would define him, but it was an important building block in his early career, proving that he could work with an established star and under the studio system at the same time.
Alice is married to Daniel and they have a pre-teen son named Tommy. Daniel is far from an ideal husband, providing little more than antagonism towards Tommy while giving Alice little affection at the same time. However, when he dies suddenly in a traffic accident, Alice is set free from the small New Mexico town of Socorro and the life that she had accepted with Daniel. Buoyed by dreams of Monterey, California from her youth (manifested by the film’s opening that has an explicitly studio lot look and feel reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz in contrast to the rest of the film that was filmed mostly in real locations), she sells everything, packs up what’s left, and takes Tommy westward. With little money, she stops in Phoenix to find a job as a singer, her profession before she had married Daniel.
She meets a man named Ben, a young man that beds her but ends up married to another woman. He breaks into Alice’s rented place with his wife there, scaring Alice into abandoning Phoenix completely. She moved Tommy to Tucson where all the work she can find is as a waitress. Working in the little diner where she found her job, she meets David, a rugged rancher who looks a whole lot like Kris Kristofferson who is instantly attracted to her. He gets along with Tommy at first, and Alice’s life seems to be looking up. When David ends up spanking Tommy after he’s a particular little bit of unpleasantness on his birthday, Alice storms off in a rage with her son, but Alice and David do love each other so they reconnect by the end.
It’s a feminist story of a woman recently freed from being trapped in a marriage with a controlling man finding a way to accept that she can want it all, and I think that smallness ends up working against the film a bit. By the end, after Alice has gone through two new relationships with men, her realization is that she can want it all, not that she can or cannot have it all. It opens her up to the desire for more, and that ends up feeling really small. It’s nice.
What makes the movie, though, is its sense of humor. A lot of that comes from Tommy. He’s an annoying smartass, but his interactions with Alice are often very funny. Hired because of his ability to improvise and go off script with Burstyn, the young Alfred Lutter has an entertaining wit that works well with Burstyn. His efforts to explain an inexplicable joke are confounding, a kind of portrait of an annoying and smart kid, born from the actor trying to tell the joke to Scorsese himself on a trip from a location shoot. Diane Ladd is also in the film as Flo, a fellow waitress at the diner, and she has a variety of colorful sayings that initially push Alice away but ultimately get them to bond together.
The movie is a light entertainment about a woman realizing something small and populated with entertaining side-characters that help provide the film’s sense of humor. It could have been more, digging deeper or being funnier, but as it is, it’s a nice little movie. Entertaining enough to stand on its own.