Overlooked Films: Still Alice

Directed (and screenplay by) Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Sony Pictures, 101 minutes, PG-13
* * *

Julianne Moore won a Best Actress Academy Award for the title role of Still Alice, but there wasn't much Oscar magic in it; the film made a paltry $18.6 million in the U.S. market. Audiences did not flock to a  film about a vibrant 50-year-old Colombia professor prematurely felled by Alzheimer's disease. I ducked for a highly personal reason: my mother died of Alzheimer's and I feared that Hollywood would somehow present this faith-shaking malady with more hope and dignity than it merited. I also needed more emotional distance between my mother's death and the subject.

I am happy to report that, for the most part, this film—which is based upon Lisa Genora's best-selling 2007 novel–does a fairly honest job with Alzheimer's devastation. At several junctures, Alice is filmed as if all around her is hazy and indistinct, which accords with how I think my mother experienced things up to the moment where she didn't experience much of anything. Glatzer and Westmoreland also do a credible job of showing how families are cast into helplessness as the inevitable takes its course–in Alice's case her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and their three children: Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth), and Tom (Hunter Parrish). The directors try to provide back stories for each character, but the film is, by necessity, all about Alice. Moore is very good in the role. She's gorgeous, but not part of Hollywood's shiny wrapper/empty head crowd. Thus, she's totally believable as both a whip smart linguistics prof and as a desperate woman victim watching herself disappear piece by tiny piece. In one of the more remarkable transformations, Moore diminishes herself physically from a coiffed pulled-together Ivy Leaguer to a bedraggled lost soul–and she does so through sheer acting, not a bunch of make-up tricks. Her hollow eyes tell us all we need to know, as we watch the lights turn off.

Objectively speaking, though, Still Alice is merely a middle-of-the-road film. A good friend commented that it's a bit too obviously a Julianne Moore star turn and I find that fair commentary. Aside from Kristen Stewart–who has the chops to become this generation's Julianne Moore–no one else has much to do in the film. Frankly, the film also raises skeptical hackles. Alice is saddled with extremely rare Familial Alzheimer's. This explains her early onset Alzheimer's, but it's also convenient in that a bankable star such as Moore can play the part rather than someone who would appeal only to older viewers. This was, of course, how Genova wrote the novel upon which the movie is based, but it also means we do not see a 'typical' Alzheimer's profile.

I will give the directors a pass on this issue, but I cannot declare Still Alice the best film you can see about dementia*.  But that too can be forgiven as the competition is two genuine masterpieces: "Away From Her," Sarah Polley's stunning 2006 directorial debut–with Julie Christie every bit Moore's equal in the lead role–and Amour (2012) with the transcendent Emmanuelle Riva as a woman whose stroke leads her to descend into depression and (probably) dementia. Director Michael Haneke's Amour does something that Still Alice fails to do: ask what love (amour) means and what you would do in its name. Let's just say that Alec Baldwin is no Jean-Louis Trintignant when it comes to knowing what his wife would have wished.

Still Alice is a hard film, though if you can only stomach one movie about losing mental faculties, this one is the easiest of the lot. One can debate whether Moore's performance was Oscar worthy or simply just very good, but it's fine enough to justify watching the movie. After you do, pour yourself a stiff drink and give thanks for each day you live in which the only haze you endure is the one your sip from the glass.
Rob Weir

*No matter what Hollywood tells you, Alzheimer's, even the Familial variety, can only be definitively diagnosed posthumously. It is generally labeled via symptoms, but as long as the patient lives, the lines between Alzheimer's, severe depression, and other forms of dementia are, if I may, hazy.


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