Movie Review – Still Alice

Directed by Richard Glatzer and Walsh Westmoreland

Starring Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin

– Spoiler Alert –

Originally posted March 20, 2015

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a linguistics professor at Columbia University whose idealistic movie lifestyle is suddenly soured with occasional memory lapses. Before long her symptoms worsen and we know going in that things will not get better. Alice has early onset Alzheimer’s.

Still Alice has only one direction in which it can go as all such movies do. In typical disease-of-the-week movie fashion we see the predictable advancement of her symptoms to its unavoidable tragic end. At first things seem normal. Her seemingly perfect life has everything a beautiful modern movie heroine’s life by law must have – a beautiful job, a beautiful house, a beautiful husband (a pudgy but still handsome Alec Baldwin) and a beautiful family (Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish, Kate Bosworth). Yes there are the occasional forgetful moments, but after all, she’s over 50. These things happen. But soon her symptoms get worse…and worse. A few trips to the neurologist confirm what we already know. Alice’s memory is slipping away and there’s nothing she or we can do about it.

Still Alice avoids few clichés on its methodical journey to the inevitable. Alice’s symptoms creep up slowly in each perfectly staged, predictable scene. First she loses things. Then she forgets meeting her son’s girlfriend. Once accessible words escape her. Conversations are forgotten and repeated minutes later, etc. etc. Like most of these films, Still Alice at times seems little more than a chronological documentation of the ailment’s progression.

The couple’s highbrow lifestyle is accentuated with the usual subtle strains of classical music. Don’t college professors ever listen to Rock-and-Roll? And why is it that ugly, impoverished, uneducated crackheads never get sick in these movies? Apparently because diseases like Alzheimer’s are only tragic when they happen to the attractive, wealthy, intelligent and emotionally grounded.

The film’s production is undeniably professional. Based on the novel by Lisa Genova and Co-directed and written by Richard Glatzer (who died of ALS earlier this month) and his husband, Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice is stylish and professionally staged throughout, with occasional cinematic artifices that accentuate Alice’s plight. The use of a blurry soft-focus for the background while maintaining the sharp-focus of the main character in a key scene, effectively visualizes Alice’s confusion. And while many of the scenes of her deterioration are undeniably poignant, much of their effect derives from the inherent tragedy of the disease rather than inspired writing or directing.

The most interesting idea in the film involves Alice’s use of computer and smartphone technology to monitor her disease’s progression, but Glatzer and Westmoreland extract limited emotional impact from this device. And like the rest of the film it’s undermined by a decided lack of characterization.

The screenplay sparsely develops it’s lead character. All we really know about her is that she is a professional. She argues with her free-spirited, college-rejecting daughter, but only in the most polite, barely conflicted and stereotypical ways. This is what passes for character development in mainstream movies. But the nature of Alice’s disease and the intensity of Moore’s screen presence render this ultimately irrelevant; She is suffering from an affliction that steals one’s personality. It might have been more interesting though if there were more personality to steal.

Most of the featured characters barely even register. Baldwin is the typical supportive husband who only seems to cave, rather unconvincingly, at the very end of the film. At least he looks believable. While most actors of his stature might have spent a few weeks at the gym to prepare for their parts, Baldwin, wrinkled and overweight, clearly shows his age, lending him a certain amount of credibility.

Parrish and Bosworth, on the other hand, simply look pretty and concerned, the script providing them no opportunities to bring insight into their characters. Only Kristen Stewart as Alice’s aspiring actress daughter is allowed to dig in to her character, most interestingly through highlighting some of the plays she performs, notably, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Tony Kushner’s epic AIDS drama, Angels in America.

In the end, Moore’s Oscar-winning performance is the real show here. Except for a stilted opening birthday party scene, she is a powerhouse throughout. It’s as if Julianne Moore herself is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, not some under drawn fictional person named Alice Howland.

In the film’s final, devastating scene, she sits helplessly, a gutted shell of a human being. Yet some essence of her personality exists. When Stewart’s daughter character recites a moving passage from the Kushner play, she asks her mother if she knows what it’s about. Almost incoherently Alice babbles, “Love…love.” Immediately the screen is filled with the film’s title card. She is “Still Alice,” we are reminded. And we know that somewhere, buried beneath the lost and confused flesh of a once vibrant individual, the indefinable quality that somehow makes each of us human still remains intact. That humanity, embodied by one of this generation’s finest actresses, is what ultimately makes this film worth seeing.

Score: 72/100

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