WOODY ALLEN likes to veer between comedy (``Radio Days,'' etc.) and drama (``Another Woman,'' etc.) and back again - sometimes cooking up a winner like ``Hannah and Her Sisters'' that combines the serious and the silly. His new picture, ``Alice,'' falls into the challenging genre of ``dramatic comedy,'' telling a tale about a somber subject - marital discontent - that's peppered with funny and fantastic twists. Parts of it work brilliantly well. But the dramatic and comic elements don't live together any more successfully than the couple at the center of the story. The film becomes more lumpy and uneven as it goes along, ending in a desperate scramble that's as weak as anything Mr. Allen has ever concocted.
The title character is a wealthy New Yorker with a handsome husband, a charming young daughter, and the snazziest apartment this side of the ``Bonfire of the Vanities'' set. But her life is superficial, a fact that Allen signals (not very cleverly) by packing the screenplay with trendy brand names. Worse, her spouse doesn't pay much attention to her needs, and when she meets an attractive man, she's tempted to have an affair. Since she's never done this sort of thing before, she needs advice from someone, and lands in the office of a Chinatown doctor with a reputation for miraculous cures - and, she discovers, a magic potion for every occasion.
Allen has become a bone of contention among critics. Many praise him for the sharpness of his wit and the smartness of his observations. Others knock him for the narrowness of his issues and the smallness of the world - mostly Manhattan, all white and comfortable - in which he explores them.
``Alice'' points up the best and worst of Allen's tendencies. When it's clicking along as an urbane romance about very real people, it's frequently superb, with vivid performances and imaginative dialogue. Not many filmmakers could turn a musicological phrase like ``a whole new world of harmonics'' into one of the year's most delightful laugh lines, but Allen pulls it off with the assurance of a master. Credit also goes to the first-rate performers who give the movie their best efforts, especially Mia Farrow as the heroine; Joe Mantegna as the would-be boyfriend; William Hurt as the left-behind husband; and the great Keye Luke as the Chinese sage.
As skillful as Mr. Luke is after his decades of Hollywood experience, however, the movie's problems start when his character enters the picture. His mysterious herbs don't just give the story a shot of energy and unpredictability - they blast it straight into fantasyland, with gimmicks like invisibility and love potions taking control of the plot. It's impossible to get engrossed in the movie's emotional situations when goofy, unbelievable fantasies keep interrupting them. It's also hard to relax and enjoy the fantasies, since they barge in from a wonderland world completely alien to the very real New York where this Alice lives.
ALLEN does have the filmmaking savvy to blend the real and fantastic in one story, as he did in ``The Purple Rose of Cairo'' a few years ago. But there the fantasy ran consistently through the film. Here it comes in fits and starts, eventually wearing out its welcome. This leads to an awfully shaky conclusion in which Alice gives up her superficial New York life to help the poor and suffering.
If we're meant to take this seriously, Allen should have given it some dramatic substance. If it's meant as a joke, it's in very bad taste and should have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Before the finale, the main trouble with ``Alice'' is that its troubled-romance portions work too well, causing frustration when they get regularly shoved off the screen. If we cared less about the Farrow and Mantegna characters, we might welcome the fantasy episodes instead of groaning with exasperation. But they just won't quit, and the movie's potentially deep feelings get lost in the on-again-off-again whimsy.
``Alice'' is symptomatic of a problem that keeps dogging Allen's career: a deep-rooted anxiety about telling a straightforward tale on its own terms. Almost every Allen movie shows a tendency to exaggerate either pathos or humor - with results that are either too grim (``Interiors'') or too silly (``A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy'') or too both, like ``Crimes and Misdemeanors,'' a fascinating film that would have worked even better without a comical subplot tacked onto its serious main story.
Allen likes to begin his movies with plain white-on-black credits that signal a no-nonsense ``serious cinema'' atmosphere, even for his out-and-out comedies. His camera work and editing style have the same earnest tone, never indulging in showy movements or superfluous cuts. Yet his stories often have something gimmicky about them - sometimes handled with virtuoso skill, like the visual tricks of ``Zelig,'' but still revealing Allen's odd hesitation about straight-ahead storytelling.
Neither a classicist nor a modernist; neither a comedian nor a tragedian; neither a Hollywood whiz nor an ornery independent - Allen keeps sitting on all these fences, neither pleasing everyone nor displeasing everyone. ``Alice'' is one film that could have gained much from a decision to go for broke with either the real or the whimsical. The same goes for Allen's whole future career.