Friday, January 16, 2015

Still Alice Movie Review

Julianne Moore stars in Still Alice

A Performance to Remember
by Susan Barocas (Contributing Editor)

When Still Alice opens, Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) has it all - a mostly happy family of three grown children and a loving husband, a distinguished career as a linguist, a brilliant mind and good looks. She teaches college, gives speeches across the country, cooks great food, holds family gatherings, exercises and even loves her husband.

There’s no need for a spoiler alert to say that at the top of this mountain of accomplishment, Alice receives a devastating diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer's disease. How she, her husband and each of the children handle everything that comes next is really what the film is about. How do we act and react when faced with a slowly unfolding, unstoppable nightmare of pain and loss, of consciously being robbed, bit by dreaded bit of our own self or of someone so dear to us?

We all panic a bit when we can’t find our car in a parking lot, or laugh nervously when we walk into a room and forget what we came to get. So Alice goes out for a run one day, and forgets where she is after running the same route for years. It’s puzzling; but it takes a few more incidents of forgetfulness for this scientist to go to the doctor, because she believes she has cancer. No, she’s not so lucky. A bit later in the film, while still painfully aware of all that is being stripped away bit by grey-matter bit, Alice declares, “I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed.”

Moore’s months of research (talking to doctors, patients, family members and support groups) make the disease real on the screen. She is deservedly racking up Best Actress nominations and awards, most recently the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Drama and... on the day before the film opens in DC, an Oscar nomination. The camera loves Moore, who is luminous on film with very little enhancement by makeup. But even all that brilliance and visible determination to live well, slowly, inexorably fades, replaced in stages by disbelief, anger, sadness and finally, a dull, vacant absence.

What makes Moore’s performance even more impressive is knowing that films like this are shot in a jumbled order, not linearly. The ending can be shot before the beginning, the illness before the first symptom. And yet, none of this shows in the film... a credit to Moore, the other actors (well, except one, so keep reading) and co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.

Of the three children, the meatiest role belongs to Kristen Stewart, who plays Lydia, the black sheep of the family, who has gone all the way across the country to become an actress in Los Angeles. Stewart totally rises to the role, moving from angry rebel to a person of understanding and compassion. As her mother’s disease begins to rob her of all her capacities, Lydia comes more and more into her own.

Kate Bosworth as Lydia’s hyper-accomplished sister Anna and Hunter Parrish as brother Tom, the soon-to-be doctor, also give credible performances. The only weak link in the film is Alec Baldwin as the husband/father Dr. John Howland. He's so stiff, so unbelievable in the role, that it's almost a distraction every time he's on screen. Watching him pretend to cry when he finally (very briefly) “breaks down” would be funny, were it not so painfully bad and out of place in an otherwise incredibly well-crafted film.

Based on the 2007 best-selling debut novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, the film’s connections to real life include executive producer Maria Shriver’s father Sargent, who suffered from Alzheimer's before he died in 2011. Maria also served as executive producer on HBO's The Alzheimer’s Project.

Still Alice is haunting. Without any melodrama or overwrought scenes, the film shows just how life-shattering a diagnosis of Alzheimer's is. Forgetting words, thoughts, your way home… forgetting that the shampoo doesn’t go in the refrigerator, where the bathroom is, who your loved ones are and finally, forgetting who you are. We know what’s coming, but are compelled to watch anyway; and in the end, we are better, wiser and more compassionate for it.

Grade: B+