“Alice Through the Looking Glass” the movie has almost no relationship to Alice Through the Looking Glass, the book by Lewis Carroll in spirit, character, or storyline. That might possibly be all right if the spirit, character, or storyline were in any way worthwhile, but it is not. Gorgeous production design and some cool stunts do not make up for a story that begins as passable and ends as painful.
Tim Burton, who produced this one, previously gave us an “Alice in Wonderland” with an adult Alice (Mia Wasikowska) replacing the little girl of the story and spending way too much time in the above-ground “real” world as she attends a party, turns down a proposal of marriage from the odious Haimish (Leo Bill), and accepts instead the offer from his father to serve as crew on a merchant ship.
In “Looking Glass,” we first see Alice, now captain of the ship, in an exciting escape from pirates that show us her courage and love of adventure. But when the ship returns to port in London, she finds that Hamish’s father has died, leaving him in charge, and he refuses to let her go back to sea. In his home, she finds a mirror over a fireplace that is a portal back to Wonderland, led by the former caterpillar, now-butterfly (voice of of the much-missed Alan Rickman).
Having already imported the talking flowers, chess pieces, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Jabberwocky from “Through the Looking Glass” into the first film, conflating the first story’s Queen of Hearts (the “Off with the head!” one) with the second story’s Red Queen (the chess one) this movie takes — but makes no use of — the first book’s characters like the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit, and then has a completely invented story about time travel. This has many disagreeable aspects, but the worst is when it puts Sasha Baron Cohen as the embodiment of Time into a scene with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and allows them to try to out-grotesque each other in a manner clearly intended to be charming. It is not.
Neither is the plot, which relies heavily on just the kind of treacly heartstrings-plucking backstories that Carroll would never have allowed, asking us to feel sympathy for outrageous behavior and affection for caricatures. The first film’s attempt to create a warm, devoted friendship between Alice and the Mad Hatter was rather ooky. In the sequel, we are asked to believe that she has returned to do whatever it takes to help him because they love each other so much. To paraphrase the folks behind “Seinfeld,” in the Alice world, there should be no hugging and no apologizing — and no heartfelt professions of affection, especially when they are not in any way justified by the characters’ history with each other.
Alice is needed on the other side of the mirror because the Mad Hatter has found something that has convinced him that his family is still alive, and not killed by the Jabberwock as he had thought. Why is this so important? Is it because he misses them so? Not really. It is because he feels bad about his behavior and needs to see them again so he can be forgiven. The disconnect between the expressions of devotion and the narcissistic reality of behavior is disturbingly cynical. Alice decides the only way she can save his family is to go back in time to the Jabberwock battle, which means she has to retrieve the chronosphere from Time himself, and that leads to more time travel as she solves various not-very-mysterious mysteries and Time chases her to get it back. Not that any of it makes any sense, logically or emotionally.
The production design is imaginative and witty, but it is buried under a gormless, hyperactive mess of a film. The book is endlessly witty and imaginative and delightful with all kinds of wordplay, math puzzles, and chess references from Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson), a math professor. The movie wastes all of that opportunity. Look at the title — the movie should be about a reverse world, not a heist/time travel saga that only concludes you can’t change history. If I had the chronosphere, I’d use it to go back to the moment I sat down to watch this movie so I could go home.
Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy peril with many disturbing images, discussion of loss of parents, brief image of someone dying, and bullying.
Family discussion: If you could go back in time, what time would you pick? Why did the Hatter and the White Queen have a hard time telling their families how they felt?
If you like this, try: the many other movie Alice stories including the Disney animated version and the Kate Beckinsale version of “Through the Looking Glass” and the books by Lewis Carroll
And then there is the question of why they would agree to this very film, recording agonizingly painful moments, both public and private. Weiner agreed to allow access to his former staffer, Josh Kriegman and his co-writer/director Elyse Steinberg for what he clearly hoped would be a film about his comeback and instead documented yet another downfall.
Cue the montage of late-night hosts making jokes about scandal #1, when Weiner accidentally sent out what he meant to be a private tweet photo of his bulging underpants to the whole world, followed by archival footage of him insisting he would not resign from Congress, followed by his resignation.
And then, what he saw as his comeback. “To clean up the mess I had made by running for mayor was the straightest line to do it.” He does not want to “live in this defensive crouch.” And yet, he acknowledges, “I lied to them, I have a funny name, and they don’t do nuance.”
While some people resist the prospect of “a punchline as a mayor,” he was ahead in the polls, with a group of bright, dedicated, young staffers. We see Weiner at his best, reaching out to voters and contributors, marching in a parade, passionate about the issues. And then comes scandal #2, the one where he texted nude photos to a young escort known as “Sidney Leathers,” using the name “Carlos Danger.” The second-saddest image in the film is the stricken face of Weiner’s campaign communications director as she must ask him whether he plans to deny the latest round of allegations, struggling with the deep ickiness of the situation on the personal and professional levels.
This movie does not attempt to explain why Weiner would undertake such behavior when he had to be aware of the professional and reputational risks, or why his wife, who clearly hates any kind of public exposure, stays with him, even though, as she says at one point, it is a nightmare. But the superbly edited film, with extraordinary intimate access based on deep trust, has a lot of insights about celebrity culture, media, and what we expect from politicians. Inevitably, the story of the frog and the scorpion comes up. Why do we make decisions we know will doom us? Is it our nature? And who is the frog and who is the scorpion in American politics, media, and culture? This movie suggests that the American electorate may be both.
Parents should know that this film includes strong language, material concerning sex scandals, some brief graphic images, and crude references.
Family discussion: Would you vote for Anthony Weiner? How much should a candidate’s private life matter in considering his or her suitability for office?
If you like this, try: the political documentaries “A Perfect Candidate” and “The War Room”
I couldn’t resist this one — Rose Marie was a superstar when her age was in single digits and her show business career tells the story of entertainment in the 20th century. I hope this film gets made.