It is the late sixties and the war is raging in Vietnam, so the United States government are drafting young men into the army to be shipped over there to fight. One of those young men who have received their draft card is musician Arlo Guthrie (playing himself), so he dutifully shows up at the offices and after sorting out his form (he put his date of birth as "Scorpio") he is told that the military will be in touch. So what's a troubadour to do but join up with a college course to avoid the army? Unfortunately that doesn't work out, and with heavy heart Arlo realises he might have to go after all...
Actually, for most of this film his heart isn't heavy at all, but he has his downbeat moments. Alice's Restaurant, the film, was naturally based on Alice's Restaurant the album, or actually the twenty minute, one entire side of a record song of that name. So for the film version, director Arthur Penn opened the story out from what would have made a neat short film to a longer work in an attempt to capture the spirit of the times. This is not as joyous as you might expect these carefree hippies to be, as they do, in fact, have cares to weigh them down as an era closes.
This means the film is more reflective and even regretful than the song ever was, something which leaves it rather uncertain in tone. After getting kicked out of college, Arlo heads off on the road much like his father Woody Guthrie, who appears here as a character, but sadly as a bedridden and silent presence in hospital who Arlo visits from time to time. Part of that regret in the film is in those scenes, with Arlo carrying on his father's good works but realising that the connection he once had to him is dwindling now the folk singer is slipping away along with a past way of life.
But what of Alice and her restaurant? She is played by Barbara Hershey-lookalike Pat Quinn, and married to the verging-on-overbearing Ray (James Broderick), who helps her with her establishment. After we watch the rocky reception that Arlo gets elsewhere (he is thrown through a window by some rednecks at one point), it's nice to see him meeting people who want him around, but the story gets sidetracked into Alice's marital worries and her casual affair with one of Arlo's friends, Shelly (Michael McClanathan), an ex-heroin addict who might be struggling with a relapse.
This is all very well, but not really what you expect from a film based on that song, and it gets so that the gentle humour is scuppered by the mood of dissatisfaction and depression. Still, there is that part in the middle where Arlo and his friend Roger (Geoff Outlaw) are arrested for illegally dumping garbage and gets a criminal record, with the actual arresting officer Obie playing himself, on his own insistence. Then the draft comes a-calling once more, and if you know the tune then you'll know how this turns out - watch for a very funny bit part from a young M. Emmet Walsh in that sequence. Sadly, other than that laughs are thin on the ground, as this is a sad-eyed look at relationships in 1969 America, and far less overtly political than you might expect. It has charm, but is by no means light-hearted.
American theatre and film director whose depiction of the rebellious character in movies found its most celebrated example in Bonnie and Clyde, which was hugely important in ushering in a new style of Hollywood film, not to mention new styles in Hollywood violence. Before that he had helmed psychological Billy the Kid story The Left Handed Gun, the much acclaimed The Miracle Worker, and Warren Beatty-starring experimental flop Mickey One, which nevertheless led to the both of them making the gangster movie that was so influential.