Friday, December 12, 2014

Still Alice (**)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland


Still Alice is Lifetime Channel-level melodrama. It's based on a Lisa Genova novel about an Ivy League linguistics professor who's life is dismantled by early onset Alzheimer's Disease. The story is ripe for tragedy and, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, it unfolds in a moment-by-moment sequence of an it-can-only-gets-worse downward spiral. All cinema is emotional manipulation, but Still Alice is a bit shameless in its pandering toward the weepy crowd. What helps the film rise above it's made-for-TV screenplay is its wonderful collection of performances. Robert Altman used to say that the actors are the most important artistic contribution to any film, and Still Alice shows this point in spades. The film is built around the performance of Julianne Moore, the titular Alice. Moore has always been just as good an actress as Meryl Streep, and twice as brave. She's spent twenty years being one of the most fearless actresses, testing her own mental, emotional and physical limits more than any other mainstream player, while still being one of the best pure performers. Moore's performance here is being talked openly as the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar coming up in February. My first thought when I think about that is that Moore has been much better in other films. My second thought is that few people are as talented to give a performance as good as hers is in Still Alice and it still be pretty low on her resumé.

Alice Howland teaches at Columbia University and is considered one of the foremost experts in her field; her linguistics textbook has become one of the cornerstones of the subject, taught all over the US. She lives in Manhattan with her husband John (Alec Baldwin), a doctor and a teacher as well. Her oldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), is married and hoping for kids very soon, and her only son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is going to medical school. The closest thing she has to a disappointment is her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who lives in Los Angeles as a struggling actress with no ambition of ever going to college. Alice's life seems almost idyllic except that lately she's been having an alarming amount of memory lapses. As a professional known for her skill with articulation, the very language that has been such a proponent to her lifestyle begins to betray her as she struggles to find the words in even simple statements. When she loses track of where she is while running near campus, she decides to visit a neurologist with fear that she has brain tumor. The diagnosis she gets instead is less lethal but more sobering: she is showing signs of early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Having just turned 50, both her and John feel certain that it may be something else - she seems to young, and to sharp, for this. But further tests confirm the diagnosis, and Alice and John must prepare to tell their children and for the unknown future as they face this harrowing disease.

My biggest complaint about Still Alice is that it doesn't seem to think the devastating effects of Alzheimer's Disease is tragic enough, and always seems to compound tragedies atop each other for premium effect. Take this plot detail: Alice learns that her form of Alzheimer's is genetic, meaning that all of her children have a fifty percent chance of contracting the trait, and if they have the trait, they're a hundred percent likely to get early Alzheimer's as well. The plot point literally adds nothing to the film's story, and only reappears later in the film to add even more sorrow to the already grim tale. The stark details of Alzheimer's are painful enough, that you do not need to manufacture drama in the narrative. Sarah Polley's 2007 film Away From Her is probably the best film these last few decades to really understand the simplicity of Alzheimer's ability to debilitate - and it's the simplicity of it that's the real killer. That movie took the point-of-view of the husband, played by Gordon Pinsent, watching his wife, played by Julie Christie, as she deteriorated. That film was also about a couple involved in academia, though it's surroundings seemed less important to the story. Still Alice is mostly from Alice's view of things, so we're put front and center to her misery, unfiltered. This method is only effective because Moore's performance is so perfect. While the script takes easy action for reaction, Moore never cheats and finds real sincerity in the situation, even unafraid to find the humor in the pockets of the narrative.

It makes sense that this is the role that may get Moore her first Oscar. Unlike most of Moore's best work, it plays to a broad audience. Despite its book club plot, there isn't a person who wouldn't find the story in Still Alice heartbreaking. The performances that Moore had in Far From Heaven, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, [safe] and Short Cuts are all better, more daring work, but Still Alice shows that she can still find the nuance within a character, even one as rigidly-drawn as this. This is a movie that certainly means well. It's duo of directors certainly aren't shying away from the devastation that Alzheimer's can bring, it's the delivery that gets complicated. What they coax out of Kristen Stewart is impressive. Watching a master emoter like Moore have scenes with Stewart who does so much with a single facial expression is more fascinating than you'd expect it to be. Away from the Twilight franchise, Stewart finally seems free to become an actual actress with no pressure to please adoring fans. Her work here is measured and surprisingly complex, expertly showing what it's like to be labeled a "wild child" when all you really are is an imperfect person in a family full of overachieving perfectionists. Stewart and Moore's scenes are so good, you'd wish that the film had more of them. Instead, we're left with plenty of scenes that shout at us in all capital letters "ALZHEIMER'S IS DEPRESSING!". We know this without the film informing us.

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