Raw and airbrushed, poignant and straightforward to a fault, Still Alice is an absorbing and affecting portrait of loss and vulnerability; a moving inquisition into the emotions, memories, and connections that make us who we are and how we cope when they’re taken away. It exhibits a tough delicacy.
When Dr. Alice Howland, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, wife of John Howland (Alec Baldwin), and mother of three children – Anna (Kate Bosworth), Lydia (Kristin Stewart), and Tom – learns that she is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease, she takes action and begins memorizing random words. As the disease progresses, it takes a significant toll on her speech and memory, straining relations with her family and professional career.
Still Alice is the kind of movie that exists solely to facilitate a great performance in the lead role. Although the part barely scratches the surface of her ability, Julianne Moore (Children of Men, The Kids Are All Right, Don Jon) succeeds smashingly as Alice, delivering one of the more memorable efforts of her career. She gives a controlled portrait of emotional implosion, bringing quietly heartbreaking nuances to a calm, considered treatment of a life-shattering situation. Alive with ferocity and committed to truth, Moore shows a staggering technical proficiency while never losing a whit of emotional resonance.
Moore’s formidable, much-lauded, Oscar-bound performance of a person disappearing before our eyes is heartbreaking to behold. She does her utmost to pull Still Alice toward the realm of meaningful social drama, and elevates Still Alice above its made-for-cable-television trappings, from disease-of-the-week fare to the role of a lifetime. To watch it is to observe one of the masters of the craft singlehandedly rescuing a film from being a maudlin mess into a watchable piece of cinema (a feat she’s pulled off twice in 2014, the other being Maps to the Stars).
Still Alice relies entirely on Moore’s performance to mask a multitude of shortcomings. Hampered by an unimaginative script and ordinary direction, hobbled by a naff aesthetic and a jarringly mawkish score, afflicted with glib contrivance and predictable writing, Still Alice cannot rise above the level of uninspired melodrama. Delivered with the expected emotional beats, Still Alice achieves modest goals, but one wishes it had a grander vision.
Banal in its Lifetime-movie execution and shot in the stolidly inconspicuous style of a low-rated cable drama, Still Alice feels a little schematic. It’s a much better movie than it ought to be, but not good enough to escape its pulpy, mendacious roots. Co-writer and co-director Richard Glatzer has cited Yasujirō Ozu as an influence, and Still Alice honours the Japanese master’s serenity unto nothingness, but pales in comparison to the miraculous purity and magnanimity of Tokyo Story.
In terms of character development, Still Alice lacks the thickness that made us sympathize and grieve with Julie Christie’s Fiona Anderson in Away from Her and Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne Laurent in Amour. Writer-directors Sarah Polley and Michael Haneke know the worst, and consider it their duty to show it; Glatzer and co-director Wash Westmoreland flinch and recoil at every opportunity the worst threatens to reveal itself. The audience gets close enough to feel the pain without reliving the depths of the horror. It’s Alzheimer’s made digestible, and that’s borderline disrespectful, if more accessible.
I wish Still Alice had the courage not to shy away from the uncomfortable, to shine a light into the abyss, knowing full well that down is sometimes the only way out. Instead, it merely provides a valuable lesson in empathy and understanding, a message of accepting what is lost, and celebrating what is not yet gone.
Is Still Alice the tearjerker of the year? No, that dubious title would likely go to Two Days, One Night. Yet the blemishes in Still Alice are generally overshadowed by sheer commitment from a fine actress. Julianne Moore’s artful consideration of familial friction acerbated by disease, and vice versa, nearly saves Still Alice. That achievement takes remarkable talent – and a performance that most are sure to remember for a long time.