Still Alice is a little film that's garnered lots of attention, thanks to Julianne Moore's much celebrated performance and its serious subject matter. Moore stars as Alice Howland, an accomplished linguistics professor who, at 50 years old, discovers she has a rare, aggressive form of early onset Alzheimer's. It's an academic's worst nightmare, and Moore's honest, vivid portrayal makes it ever more the torture to watch.
Anyone who's experienced a degenerative disease will no doubt identify with and find catharsis in Alice's story. Otherwise, these are the kinds of ills that healthy, sane people can't help but want to ignore. If you're looking to the cinema for escapism, fantasy or a respite from your troubles, then get as far away from this movie as your legs will take you.
Richard Glatzer adapted the film from a 2009 novel by Lisa Genova and directed it with his partner, Wash Westmoreland. Not to pile on yet another layer of tragedy, but it's true: Glatzer died earlier this month after a long battle with ALS.
Alice's symptoms begin innocently enough. She loses her train of thought in the middle of a heady linguistics lecture. Next she's forgetting familiar faces and feeling disoriented in places that should be familiar to her, like the middle of the Columbia University campus. The neurologist tells her it looks like early onset Alzheimer's, and always the first reaction is, "That doesn't make any sense." Turns out diseases of the mind can hit intelligent people hardest of all, since they're better equipped to develop coping mechanisms and thus mask its symptoms. But now the disease has caught up with Alice, and it gets even worse: If hers is the genetic kind, each of her grown-up children has a 50 percent chance of carrying the cursed gene.
Alec Baldwin plays her husband John, a successful biologist in his own right. He also struggles accepting the initial diagnosis. In the face of serious disaster, some people have a hard time facing the music. They cling to unrealistic optimism and get angry when others don't follow suit. As John unwittingly slips into the role of caretaker, you half expect him to have an affair or take out a hit on his wife or something, but unfortunately, this isn't that kind of movie. Mostly John is just trying to do good by his wife while keeping the rest of the family intact. It's a laudable moral position, but not the most riveting turn of events for the audience.
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Alice's oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) has a new husband and twins in utero. There's a brother named Tom (Hunter Parrish), and the youngest, Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Lydia's moved across the country to try to make it as an actress in Hollywood. The other siblings give her a hard time for living far away, but in fact she and Alice have the closest relationship of all of them. It's a warm, understated performance by Stewart and further proof that she's a formidable actress.
Once Alice is diagnosed and the family comes to terms with the new reality, the film has nothing left to do but pit us sadistically as voyeurs to her increasingly frightening mental deterioration. It's a bum deal for anybody, but particularly so for a woman who built an entire career on developing and then sharing precise intellectual concepts. When Alice can no longer lecture to students or carry on her academic research, what else is there in life to look forward to? "I wish I had cancer," she says. Her forever clueless husband reflexively says, "Don't say that," but of course we know exactly what she means. At least cancer makes sense, and it often makes for a swifter end.
Beyond Moore's extraordinary, Oscar-winning portrayal and its realistic depiction of a sad disease, this movie scarcely elevates above that of a tired made-for-television movie. The chronology is clunky and certain scenes are unforgivably sentimental. If there'd just been a little more meat on the bones besides Alice's disease, it might have been enough to carry us through. Instead, the film's dimly lit and flatly written and everyone's operating under a reasonable but agonizing dearth of hope. Maybe just buy yourself an ice cream after?
Still Alice opens at the Roxy Fri., March 20.