Saturday, March 5, 2011

Alex in Wonderland (1970)

          The circumstances of this picture are so precious that you know what you’re in for before the film even starts. After scoring a massive hit with his directorial debut, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Paul Mazursky made this picture about a movie director who can’t decide how to follow up his successful debut. Thus, viewers meet Alex (Donald Sutherland), a self-involved hippie auteur simultaneously casting about for ideas and rejecting every idea that crosses his path. Alex wanders around L.A. in a daze, drifting into daydreams about hanging out with European-cinema giants Federico Fellini and Jeanne Moreau (who appear as themselves), suffering the obsequiousness of sycophants, trying the patience of his grounded wife (Ellen Burstyn) and smart children, and wigging out with acid-dropping friends who think they’ve unlocked the secrets of the universe.
          Mazursky, who wrote the picture with Larry Tucker, is at his best during loose scenes of people rapping about heavy things, man, but he ventures way outside his wheelhouse during the picture’s Fellini-esque fantasy scenes. Mazursky pointlessly cops from the Italian master’s playbook, filling the screen with circus folk, dwarves, religious figures, warfare, and other “significant” imagery that’s meant to illustrate the deep thoughts bouncing around Alex’s mind. At the film’s most ridiculous extreme, dozens of naked black people emerge from the ocean and dance around Alex in a tribal ritual because he’s contemplating a movie about the plight of African-Americans.
          Alex’s indecision and pretention make him seem like a spoiled brat, especially because he acts out whenever someone suggests that one of his utterances isn’t brilliant. Worse, the movie doesn’t go anywhere: Alex is just as lost at the end of the picture as he was at the beginning. The point, presumably, is to illustrate that Hollywood isn’t designed to nurture artists, but rather to present crass commercial opportunities. That’s not exactly an earth-shattering insight, which might explain why audiences and critics reacted so indifferently to Alex in Wonderland. The picture isn’t helped by Sutherland’s performance, which fails to add sympathetic colors to an inherently insufferable character, or by Burstyn’s, because she’s sour throughout most of her scenes. As a result, it’s impossible to get invested in the welfare of this unpleasant couple. Only Mazursky himself comes off “well,” because he’s funny and sharp in a featured role as a vapid Hollywood executive courting Alex for a slate of unattractive movie projects. (Available at

Alex in Wonderland: LAME


jf said...

Pretty nifty poster, anyway. Looks like a Milton Glaser illustration.

Steffie Nelson said...

I loved this movie. I don't think the circus figures and soldiers and priests are meant to illustrate "deep thoughts," but to show how confused his thoughts are. I think it is absolutely brilliant that Mazursky throws all Alex's influences, plus Jeanne Moreau and exploding bombs, into one scene that he masterfully stages along Hollywood boulevard. It's absurd, magical, crazy and fun.