In 1965, Arlo Guthrie (as himself) has attempted to avoid the draft by attending college in Montana. His long hair and unorthodox approach to study gets him in trouble with local police as well as residents. He quits school, following which he hitchhikes back East. He first visits his father Woody Guthrie (Joseph Boley) in the hospital.
Arlo ultimately returns to his friends Ray (James Broderick) and Alice Brock (Pat Quinn) at their home, a deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where they welcome friends and like-minded bohemian types to "crash". Among these are Arlo's school friend Roger (Geoff Outlaw) and artist Shelley (Michael McClanathan), an ex-heroin addict who is in a motorcycle racing club. Alice is starting up a restaurant in nearby Stockbridge. Frustrated with Ray's lackadaisical attitude, she has an affair with Shelley, and ultimately leaves for New York to visit Arlo and Roger. Ray comes to take her home, saying he has invited a "few" friends for Thanksgiving.
The central point of the film is the story told in the song: After Thanksgiving dinner, Arlo and his friends decide to do Alice and Ray a favor by taking several months worth of garbage from their house to the town dump. After loading up a red VW microbus with the garbage, and "shovels, and rakes and other implements of destruction", they head for the dump. Finding the dump closed for the holiday, they drive around and discover a pile of garbage that someone else had placed at the bottom of a short cliff. At that point, as mentioned in the song, "...we decided that one big pile is better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down."
The next morning they receive a phone call from "Officer Obie" (Police Chief William Obanhein as himself), who asks them about the garbage. After admitting to littering, they agree to pick up the garbage and to meet him at the police station. Loading up the red VW microbus, they head to the police station where they are immediately arrested.
As the song puts it, they are then driven to the scene of the crime where the police are engaged in a hugely elaborate investigation. At the trial, Officer Obie is anxiously awaiting the chance to show the judge the 27 photos of the crime but the judge (James Hannon as himself) happens to be blind, using a seeing eye dog, and simply levies a $50 fine, orders them to pick up the garbage and then sets them free. The garbage is eventually taken to New York and placed on a barge. Meanwhile, Arlo has fallen in love with a beautiful Asian girl, Mari-chan (Tina Chen).
Later in the movie, Arlo is called up for the draft, in a surreal depiction of the bureaucracy at the New York City military induction center on Whitehall Street. He attempts twice to make himself unfit for induction, first by getting drunk the night before and performing the physical exams while hung over, then by acting like a homicidal maniac in front of the psychiatrist, but fails both times (the latter incident actually gets him praise). Because of Guthrie's criminal record for littering, he is first sent to the Group W bench (where convicts wait), then outright rejected as unfit for military service, not because of the littering incident, but because the government is suspicious of "his kind" and instead opted to submit his personal records to Washington, DC.
Upon returning to the church, Arlo finds Ray and members of the motorcycle club showing home movies of a recent race. Shelley enters, obviously high, and Ray beats him until he reveals his stash of heroin, concealed in some art he has been working on. Shelley roars off into the night on his motorcycle to his death; the next day, Woody dies. Ray and Alice have a hippie-style wedding in the church, and a drunken Ray proposes to sell the church and start a country commune instead, revealing that he blames himself for Shelley's death. The film ends with Alice standing alone in her bedraggled wedding gown on the church steps.
The real Alice Brock makes a number of cameo appearances in the film. In the scene where Ray and friends are installing insulation, she is wearing a brown turtleneck top and has her hair pulled into a ponytail. In the Thanksgiving dinner scene, she is wearing a bright pink blouse. In the wedding scene, she is wearing a Western-style dress.
Stockbridge police chief William Obanhein ("Officer Obie") plays himself in the film, explaining to Newsweek magazine that making himself look like a fool was preferable to having somebody else make him look like a fool. Judge James E. Hannon, who presided over the littering trial, also appears as himself in the film. Many of Guthrie's real-life associates in Stockbridge made appearances as extras, and Venable Herndon spent time living among them in an effort to grasp their lifestyle. Guthrie and all of the extras were housed at the same hotel during, but Guthrie received star treatment; a limousine was provided for Guthrie each morning while the others had to find their own transportation for filming. This strained the relations between Guthrie and his friends for many years.
The film also features the first credited film appearance of character actor M. Emmet Walsh, playing the Group W sergeant. (Walsh had previously appeared as an uncredited extra in Midnight Cowboy, released three months prior.) The film also features cameo appearances by American folksingers/songwriters Lee Hays (playing a reverend at an evangelical meeting) and Pete Seeger (playing himself).
The original song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" that formed the basis for the film's central plotline was, for the most part, a true story. However, other than this and the hippie wedding at the end of the film, most of the other events and characters in the film were fictional creations of the screenplay's writers. According to Guthrie, commenting in the DVD's audio commentary section, the film used the names of real people but took numerous liberties with actual events. Richard Robbins, Guthrie's co-defendant in real-life, was replaced by the fictional Roger Crowther for the film (in the song, he remained anonymous). The subplots involving the Shelly character were completely fictional and not based on any real people or incidents in Guthrie's life; his character's motorcycle club was loosely based on the Trinity Motorcycle Club (or, by a conflicting account, the Triangle Motorcycle Club), a real-life group of cyclists that associated with the Brocks and were alluded to in another Guthrie song, the "Motorcycle Song." The film also has Guthrie being forced to leave a Montana town after "creating a disturbance" – i.e., several town residents object to Guthrie's long hair, and gang up to throw him through a plate glass window. This never happened, and Guthrie expresses regret that Montana got a "bad rap" in the film. In reality, during the time of the littering incident and trial, Guthrie was still enrolled in a Montana college, and was only in Stockbridge for the long Thanksgiving weekend (he would drop out of college at the end of the semester).
Alice Brock has spoken very negatively of the film's portrayal of her. She stated in a 2014 interview "That wasn’t me. That was someone else’s idea of me." She took particular offense at the film falsely implying that she had slept with Guthrie (among others) and noted that she had never associated with heroin users. She also noted that the song and film brought a large amount of unwanted publicity: "It just really impinged on your privacy. It’s just amazing how brazen people can be when you’re a supposed public figure(…) We sold the church at that point." Richard Robbins, who did not consent to his likeness being used in the film, described almost all the additions to the story as "all fiction" and "complete bull."
Critical reception of the film has wavered between seeing the film as light entertainment and as a political statement. In 2009, Politics Daily wrote that, "calling the 1969 film a comedy misses its noir backbeat of betrayed romanticism, and thinking of it as a madcap autobiography misses its politics. This is a movie driven by the military draft and the Vietnam War".
When interviewed in 1971, the film's director, Arthur Penn, said of the film: "What I tried to deal with is the US's silence and how we can best respond to that silence. ... I wanted to show that the US is a country paralyzed by fear, that people were afraid of losing all they hold dear to them. It's the new generation that's trying to save everything".
In being offered the opinion that violence is not so important in the film, Penn replied: "Alice's Restaurant is a film of potential transition because the characters know, in some way, what they are looking for. ... It's important to remember that the characters in Alice's Restaurant are middle-class whites. They aren't poor or hungry or working class. They are not in the same boat as African Americans. But they're not militants either. In this respect the church dwellers are not particularly threatening. They find it easy to live there, even if most people can't afford such a luxury. From this point of view, this film depicts a very specific social class. It's a bourgeois film".
The final scene is not of a loving couple seeing off their guests, but of Alice standing alone looking into the distance, watching the guests leave, as if knowing that her future is in fact bleak with Ray. Coincidentally, the real Alice and Ray finalized their divorce on the same day the wedding scene was filmed. Arthur Penn has said that the final scene was intended as comment on the inevitable passing of the counterculture dream: "In fact, that last image of Alice on the church steps is intended to freeze time, to say that this paradise doesn’t exist any more, it can only endure in memory". Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune listed Alice's Restaurant as third best film of 1969.
The film grossed $6,300,000 in the United States, making it the 23rd highest-grossing film of 1969.Nominated for Academy Award for Best Director (1969) – Arthur Penn
Nominated for Writers Guild of America Award for Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen (1970) – Venable Herndon, Arthur Penn
Third Place – Laurel Awards – Golden Laurel for Comedy (1970)
Nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards – Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music (1971) – Arlo Guthrie