Alzheimer’s hits hard in simple family drama
Directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
Right about now Hollywood is realizing it needs to start capitalizing on all those Oscar nominations. By the end of the month, there’s going to be one winner and four losers in each category, and it will be too late for a lot of films to exploit the opportunity. So for the second week in a row, we get an “it’s about time” theatrical release for one of this year’s Best Actress nominees: Julianne Moore in the empathetic psychological drama Still Alice.
The film, based on Lisa Genova’s novel, is a doggedly straightforward affair. Like a lot of dramas of late (certainly last week’s “Best Actress” nominee, Two Days, One Night), Still Alice has less of a fully embellished “plot” and more of a stripped-bare “situation.” It’s primarily an exercise in acting—and a rewarding one if you know that’s what you’re in for. That Moore is a top-shelf actress is no shocker at this stage of her career. Here, she’s more than up to the task of playing Alice Howland, a happily married wife and mother to three grown kids. She works at Cambridge and vacations out in Nassau County. All in all, it looks like a pleasant, upper-middle-class life. But something’s not quite right with Alice. She’s starting to forget little things. She’s having trouble playing Words With Friends—which, for a linguistics professor, is just dripping with irony. Turns out she has early-onset Alzheimer’s.
The diagnosis comes quickly, and the film basically chronicles how Alice and her family deal with the sudden, unpleasant reality. Hubby John (Alec Baldwin—fine, but needing more flamboyant roles these days) is alternately concerned and angry over the diagnosis. Oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) worries how the diagnosis might affect her pregnancy. (Early onset is genetic and filial.) Youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) isn’t sure how to take the situation, having run off to California to start her own life as a bohemian actress. But it’s Alice’s coping mechanisms that form the backbone of the film’s narrative. Alice is a highly intellectual woman with a background in language. She quickly learns tricks to deal with and/or hide her illness.
But sadly, there’s no treating or fully arresting this cruel condition. Moore is at her best showing the light-switch changes from cognizance to confusion. A scene in which she goes jogging and loses her way on familiar streets slides from bewilderment to sheer panic in seconds—all with the most subtle changes in facial expression on Moore’s part. There’s no doubt it’s an Oscar-worthy job. The acting surprise, however, comes in the form of Stewart—who, at her best, has never been much more than tolerable on screen. Here, she does solid work as the somewhat estranged daughter whose career choices have taken her far afield from her academic family. Stewart does slatternly and aloof pretty well. But in the end, her “artsy” character ends up being the most sensitive to her mother’s condition and gives the film a fine grace note on which to end.
The title of the film is important to note, as it drives home the good and bad of Alzheimer’s. People with the disease are still themselves. Filmmakers Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland (The Fluffer, Quinceañera) have obviously done their research and portray the horrors of Alzheimer’s with compassion and quietude. Everyone walks into their living room and forgets what they went in there for from time to time. But to walk into your living room and forget where the bathroom is located is a whole different level of unease. To know, among the decreasingly frequent moments of lucidity, that you are slowly losing all your precious memories is a particularly harsh fate to endure. It’s this tough, tragic arc that Still Alice so gently underplays by giving a sympathetic face to the disease—a disease we all know, but hopefully will never have to feel.