Photo by Linda Kallerus / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Julianne Moore is a college professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease in Still Alice.
Julianne Moore’s portrait of the effects of early-onset Alzheimer's disease has already earned the actress her fifth Oscar nomination, which is likely to be her first win later this month. The gradations of her decline are the relentless focus of Still Alice, a heartrending film that balances poignancy and melodrama with mixed results. But the persistently personal nature feels earned, as co-director Richard Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.
Moore’s Dr. Alice Howard, an esteemed, 50-year-old Columbia University linguistics professor, lives a well-heeled life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her husband John (Alec Baldwin), a workaholic physician-researcher. Alice’s occasional confusion during midday jogs quickly turns into mid-lecture forgetfulness, a cruelly ironic starting point for an Alzheimer's sufferer whose career is all about words.
Alice and John initially tackle her diagnosis like academics, channeling their formidable education toward outwitting an incurable foe. Eventually, Alice accepts and grapples with the inevitable reality of her intellectual vitality and self-discipline gradually slipping away. As her practicality and despondency collide, she hides a bottle of sleeping pills and records a video message to her future vulnerable self, knowing the other Alice will only follow the stark instructions once she is no longer capable of comprehending their import. Somehow, the outcome of this plan is even more agonizing than anticipated.
Alice also copes with the effects of her disease on her family, starting with the fear that she may pass the genetic predisposition for her rare early-onset Alzheimer's variant to her children, including daughters Lydia (Kristen Stewart, in fine form) and Anna (Kate Bosworth), as well as Anna’s unborn child. Lydia, an aspiring actress trying to carve out a life in Los Angeles, is pulled back into the orbit of her exacting mother. Apart from Moore’s raw solo act, her scenes with Stewart are the film’s high points.
The same can’t be said for the byplay between Alice and John, whose role is massively miswritten. He vacillates between empathy and subtle insensitivity from scene-to-scene with little connective narrative tissue. At times, John is caring and protective, while at other times, he is placating to the point of being dismissive. There are too many instances of him reminding Alice of a conversation she forgot, or shooting sidelong nods toward their kids to silently affirm his insight into poor Alice’s rapidly worsening symptoms.
Glatzer and co-director Wash Westmoreland’s script—an
adaptation of Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel
—leans heavily on sentimentality and Moore’s talent. It contains few narrative detours and little that qualifies as stimulating dialogue (John’s discourse is
particularly labored). Thankfully, Moore transcends the maudlin material’s tearjerker trappings and elevates it into a compassionate and sincere study.
smacks of a high-gloss Lifetime movie buttressed by a singular star turn. Indeed, if anything, the film’s shortcomings serve to accent Moore’s superlative performance. And that’s the stuff that Oscar winners are made of.