Alice is an aging beatnik. With her husband Ray, she has bought a church and converted it into a restaurant with the purpose of attracting young people into a communal utopia. Alice plays erotic mother to the boys in her extended family, which ignites a near murderous hatred in Ray toward the young studs, especially the heroin-addicted Shelley.
Arlo Guthrie is ostensibly the hero of the story, with his “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” providing the movie’s plot. Although his honest and relaxed attitude toward free love provides an appealing counterpoint to Ray’s uptight sexist hang-ups, the film is mostly about Alice and Ray’s failure to live up to their idealistic past, and how they try to manipulate the younger generation into helping them to realize their own utopian dreams.
Although girls and women are always throwing themselves at Arlo, he is decent enough not to use them for his own temporary pleasures. He politely declines their sexual invitations unless he really feels something for them as people. His admirers include an underage groupie, an over-aged folk club manager, Alice, and two hippie girls of his own generation. He becomes involved with the two girls that are his own age. It doesn’t work out with the first one, but the relationship with the second shows promise.
Ray doesn’t seem to have any sex life at all. His social desperation is expressed through a sublimated “cult leader” personality, which resolves the contradiction of identifying himself as being both leader and participant. In the beginning, this effusive optimism is infectious, but by the end, a pervasive depression settles into the deconsecrated edifice, as the young people suffer the weight of his egotistical pipe dreams.
Leaving us with Alice, frozen in an Antonioni pose against the building’s walls, alone with her husband Ray in this desecrated cathedral that has become as damned as a fresco by Hieronymus Bosch. In all three parts of Arthur Penn’s American apocalypse trilogy, religion, when mentioned at all, is mentioned as a condition of the past, something that no longer has meaning or value to anyone. In a sense, Ray and Alice are trying to restore the religious element of society, albeit in a method usually associated with paganism.
There is a crucial difference between earth-based religions that favor agriculture over sky pies, and orgiastic drug and sex celebrations that are a cover-up for exploiting others for one’s own selfish pleasure. Ray is a neutered satyr who has turned his wife into an earth mother and resents the fact that he is not among the pups that feed on her milk.
This is the last stop for Jane/Faye/Pat, the three mothers of the three haunted palaces. The rural suburbia of small-town Texas, where social order has been replaced by a class system burning in the chaos of sex and violence. the open road of the fugitive killers, where individuality mutates into pathological alienation, and the defiled holy house, where hope is abandoned by those who try to make it their home.
And then there is Arlo, escaping with his new girlfriend from the web of Ray and Alice, not as Anna Reeves escaped from her small Texas town, but as Sheriff Calder escaped, by driving away with his wife. The question Penn leaves us with regarding both couples is whether or not they will make it. Are their dreams solid and pure enough to rebuild a new America in the ashes of racism, genocide, usury, intolerance, sexism, and war? Or are they doomed to fall into future permutations of the same inferno?
This is a question every citizen of the United States should ask themselves.