The very eccentric and personal film is a reflection of an atmosphere of confusion and panic in the major studios after off-beat, inexpensive studio releases such as “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” proved to be much more popular with audiences in 1969 than such big-budget traditional fare as “Hello, Dolly!”
A revolution had been brewing since “The Graduate” and “Bonnie & Clyde” came out in 1967, but it didn’t really take hold until a few years later when it became clear that tastes were changing and audiences wanted edgier and more adult fare.
The studio bosses didn’t really know what would work, so for a few years they backed politically and stylistically radical pictures such as “Zabriskie Point” that were much more expensive than “Easy Rider” and wound up losing huge piles of money. They also opened the doors to young innovative directors like Mazursky and Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola.
“Alex in Wonderland” was the result of the great success Mazursky (and writing partner Larry Tucker) scored with “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” in 1969, a racy sex comedy that became one of the most talked-about films of the period and a major financial success as well.
Mazursky and Tucker suddenly were in that privileged position of being able to make any movie that they wanted, but they didn’t know what they wanted to do and wound up creating an autobiographical comedy about a director (Donald Sutherland) enjoying his first great success who wonders how he can top it.
Inspired partially by Federico Fellini’s “8-1/2,” the Hollywood duo made a picture about their own creative indecision, filled with dream sequences inspired by the Fellini masterpiece, along with a cameo by the Italian maestro himself (left).
The result was dismissed as “self-indulgent” by most critics and the movie’s release was severely curtailed after it flopped in New York and Los Angeles. Up until the Warner Archive DVD-on-demand service released the film, “Alex in Wonderland” was the only Mazursky picture I had never seen.
With my expectations lowered, I was able to focus on the good things in the film rather than its intentionally thin narrative. Sutherland is good as an egomaniacal artiste director who expects everyone around him to worry about his second film as much as he does — including his long-suffering wife (beautifully played by Ellen Burstyn, below, just before she became a major star).
Mazursky himself turns up in a hilarious scene as a studio executive — who has grown out his hair and behaves in an ostentatiously “hip” manner — who offers Alex a number of dismal-sounding projects (a love story about a heart transplant, a lame biopic, etc.).
The director gives us a wonderful documentary-style view of Los Angeles 41 years ago — scenes are set in actual health food restaurants and on the MGM lot (where a giant banner ad touts the studio’s disastrous 1969 musical version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”).
“Alex in Wonderland” bombed but the time it gave Mazursky to reflect on his next stage as a director led to an incredibly fruitful 1970s run of pictures that included “Harry & Tonto” and “An Unmarried Woman.”