[box cover]

I Love You, Alice B. Toklas

For fans of Peter Sellers who are score-keeping the up-and-down work during his late-'60s blue period, 1968's I Love You, Alice B. Toklas isn't as charming or pleasant as The Party from earlier that year. On the other hand, it's not as smugly charmless as The Magic Christian or as dreary as Hoffman. It is, in fact, hardly there at all. As in There's a Girl in My Soup (1970), 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. For a movie that takes its title from the Haight-Ashbury scene's recipe for marijuana brownies, it doesn't aim to be a "counterculture" experience à la The Magic Christian. 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 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 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, 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. As a middle-aged hippie escaping the Establishment's uptight propriety, 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 (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). But 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 was nothing challenging or illuminating here, and with the Summer of Love long done and gone the movie probably felt retro the day it premiered. So it 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 primetime reruns.

Nonetheless, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas has a gentle soul. It gives the era's youth counterculture a sympathetic, even affectionate shake. In the final scenes, 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, we'll assume that the twee theme song by Harpers Bizarre, which incessantly repeats the title like the mantra of an Up With People show choir, is not Mr. Bernstein's fault. (On Leigh Taylor-Young's web site, www.lty.com, her pages of reminiscences and behind-the-scenes photos from the movie are worth a look.)

*          *          *

Warner's standard-issue DVD is okay. The image (1.85:1, anamorphic) comes from a print that would have benefited from some clean-up, but this catalog title is too inconsequential to have merited such attention. Otherwise it's not bad and that's the worst you can say about it. The DD 1.0 audio is likewise good but ordinary. Here too is a DD 1.0 French track and subtitle options in English, Spanish, and French. The theatrical trailer is the sole extra. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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