By Brian Abrams
In 1968, popular culture had completely expunged the prudish “Fab Fifties” mentality and became paradise for the stoner. The literati introduced the world to Carlos Castaneda. Led Zeppelin launched its debut tour. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In premiered on ABC. Hollywood got pretty damn loopy, too.
In fact, one Warner Bros. picture built its entire plotline around eight minutes of reel involving a box of Pillsbury Fudge, a cake mixer, and a prescription bottle packed with schwag. Fast-forward thirty-eight years, and the film in question, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!, returns from the shroud of obscurity and releases on DVD June 20th 2006.
Warner’s marketing hats ostensibly went so gaga for the weed-crazed scene in the film that they practically loaded the original theatrical trailer (a DVD extra) with its entire duration. It goes something like this: When hippie chick, Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), randomly crashes at the L.A. apartment owned by uptight asthmatic attorney, Harold Fine (Peter Sellers), she fires up a J while watching the tube that night; at sunrise, Harold goes to the office while the cinnamon girl hangs out at his digs and leaves behind a little inspiration, a batch of special brownies.
The following evening Harold and his way-Jewish family (the kvetchy parents and frigid fiancÃ©) get totally ripped. They break into lung-swelling laughter and go miniature-golfing. Mama can’t even hit the ball straight.
Consequently, the uppity counselor breaks free of his square living and does what anyone would do after taking that first hit of sweet, sweet cheeba: he ditches the fiancÃ©, invites the hottie hippie chick to move in, and scoots around town in a station wagon adorned with psychedelic graffiti. Sound familiar?
Harold’s martyring mother (played superbly by Jo Van Fleet) has her highpoints, like when she gets hysterical at her butcher’s funeral over her other flower-powered son’s “traditional burial outfit of the Hopi Indians,” but overall the movie focuses on Harold’s reckless transformation.
Who can blame him? His mother and wife-to-be browbeat night and day over who’s coming to the wedding and how twin cantors are conducting the ceremony, among other mundane domesticities. Harold was only engaged to the co-dependent JAP because … well … he really doesn’t know why – about as good an explanation as you’ll get from a man who suddenly decides to abandon his crisp white collar career, meditate naked on the beach, and allow packs of scruffy strangers to stay at his home.
To put it plainly, Harold just loses his marbles.
That’s what I like best about Alice B. The whole movie lightly examines the modern man’s middle-aged crisis and doesn’t pretend to have an answer. (In 1970, Melvin Van Peebles’ The Watermelon Man took a similar route, only masking a conservative WASP’s nervous breakdown with racial satire instead of a pothead protagonist’s with headbands and door beads.)
It’s kind of tragic when you think about it. Riddled with anxieties, Harold can’t find a place in life – neither in the Establishment where nitpicking mothers and needy wives burrow, nor among the free-spirits where sex-pots half his age share a bed with you one night and body-paint someone else the morning after.
He’s a nowhere man, and his plight exists as much today as it did thirty-eight years ago. But what gives Toklas the upper-hand over the more recent old man “self-discovery” comedies (Bringing Down the House, Old School) is that you just don’t see any 40-year olds chowing down on pot brownies anymore.