MOVIE REVIEW: Still Alice
"STILL ALICE"-- 4 STARS
Mark the date. The race for the Academy Award for Best Actress is over. Don't wait until next February. Seriously, it's over. Skip past Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the accountants with briefcases. Go get the engraver and spell the name "Julianne Moore" and "Still Alice" on the statuette. Sorry to Reese Witherspoon, Rosamund Pike, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Aniston, and whoever else is unlucky enough to be nominated against her this year. You will all take a back seat to Julianne Moore. She has deserved Oscar recognition for years in numerous films like "Boogie Nights," "The End of the Affair," "Safe," "Far From Heaven," "The Hours," and "The Kids Are All Right." "Still Alice" will be the film to seal the deal.
If you haven't heard of "Still Alice," I advise you to trust this spoiler-free review and skip the trailer entirely. It's a beautiful preview, but it skews context, tips its hand, and gives away far too much. Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by neuroscientist and writer Lisa Genova, "Still Alice" was first adapted as a stage play at the Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago in 2013. The directing and writing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland ("The Last Robin Hood") crafted it into a feature film. "Still Alice" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and has increased facial tissue sales ever since with a full release still to come. Learn the gist from here and let the film unfold before you.
Current Golden Globe nominee and four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland. She is a successful lecturer and prominent professor of linguistics at Columbia University in New York. Alice has just turned 50, is married to an equally-successful doctor John (Alec Baldwin, playing it straight), and is a mother to three adult children Anna (Kate Bosworth), Lydia (Kristen Stewart, yes, the "Twilight" one), and Tom (Hunter Parrish of TV's "Weeds"). She is a woman defined by her high level of intelligence and communication at the peak of her career, but symptoms of random forgetfulness begin to mount, making her uneasy.
It starts with little things like forgetting words, names, associations, recipes, directions, and starting or finishing a task. When she gets lost jogging on her own college campus, Alice seeks out a neurologist to get checked on. Tests are started and symptoms grow. Soon, it's familiar faces, broken routines, job performance, and deeper knowledge. She initially hides the symptoms and the doctor interviews from her family and her worry keeps her up at night, but that doesn't last long. She confides in John and conducts genetic testing to define for certain what is already feared. Alice and John are stunned to find that Alice is diagnosed with a rare case of Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Beyond being incurable and barely treatable, they learn further that the rare condition is familial and can be passed to offspring through genetics.
That news rocks the Howland family and the realization that things for Alice will only get worse begins to take hold. Over the next several months and possibly years, we episodically watch Alice's decline in mental function and the lifestyle changes that slowly effect her, her marriage, and her children. As you could imagine, this is a difficult, yet powerful scenario to watch.
The camera never leaves Julianne Moore in "Still Alice." You follow Alice's struggles and her fears every single moment of the film. That is a delicate and challenging tone to convey for a film. You watch loss, but are never lost. There is a brilliant stylistic use of blur and perspective by French cinematographer Denis Lenoir ("Righteous Kill," "88 Minutes") to represent not just the visual things that are unclear to her, but also the mental ones as well. The result is a smooth artistic choice from the directors that works very well on screen.
Since we only see Alice's point-of-view and are not cued on the passage of time, we are required to pick up subtle hints of progress and setbacks from the deteriorating interactions of Alice with her family members. That flowing pace keeps "Still Alice" from feeling like a string of emotionally over-the-top scenes made for single solitary moments or themes. Baldwin, Bosworth, and especially Stewart all convey so much of this film's tone from facial expressions, reactions, and even simple exchanges of pleasantries balanced with dismissal, reservation, and disappointment. The balance of heartbreak and hope for everyone is extremely compelling.
None of that ensemble works without Julianne Moore's immensely emotional lead performance. This is the best lead acting performance I have seen this year, regardless of gender. Her fervor and courage holds through the roller coaster of peaks of valleys that connect to this disease. The difficulty to convey both the weakness and symptoms of the disease are one thing, but for Moore to cling to and shine the underlying and undying dignity of this character is something truly special. It's utterly incredible to watch. Never once is it preening or selfish. Never once does it feel like Oscar bait. Much like my recent review of "Two Days, One Night" with Marion Cotillard, Moore's performance alone is worth the price of admission. After that, you will still get a phenomenal drama that is more than worth your attention and time.
LESSON #1: THE EFFECTS OF EARLY-ONSET ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE ON THE INDIVIDUAL-- For the overwhelming majority of the movie-going audience, "Still Alice" will likely be your first encounter, albeit a fictional one, with Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Back in 2007, Japanese Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai," "Godzilla") starred in a very little-seen foreign film named "Memories of Tomorrow" with a similarly stricken lead character. The film (trailer here) received a sterling 3.5 star review from Roger Ebert back in the day. Unless you've seen that film, watching the physical, mental, and emotional moments of mental decline, lifestyle failures, and imminently growing fear in "Still Alice" will greatly educate you and resonate your manner of thinking on this disease. Eye-opening is an understatement.
LESSON #2: THE EFFECTS OF EARLY-ONSET ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE ON FAMILIES-- Even though the film stays with Alice's perspective, the reactions and actions of her family members speak volumes about dealing with this effects of this disease. With Early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, we're not talking about senior citizens caring for other senior citizens. This is middle-aged woman with reasonably young children who are going through this cycle of loss. Some of her family take it harder than others. Some never leave the stage of anger and shock, while others are kind and helpful. Some are frustrated and give up once things get beyond repair, while others never leave her side and seek to boost her dignity and identity before it is lost. You wish and hope for more positives than negatives.
LESSON #3: THE POINT WHERE YOU LOSE YOURSELF AND YOUR DIGNITY-- Those last two ideals from Lesson #2, dignity and identity, constitute this final lesson and ring true beyond just Alzheimer's Disease. Every person wants to hold onto their worth, character, and dignity when faced with their own mortality. The debilitating effects of Alzheimer's Disease are worse that cancer in many eyes. With cancer, it's your body that fails you, not your mind. You at least have that. Much was made and talked about earlier this year on the topic of "dying with dignity" and the case of Brittany Maynard. The moral dilemma of a terminal illness has a breaking point for every person. The central, burning fire of Alice, as an educated woman, a wife, and a mother, matches the human condition to fight for one's identity and dignity. She knows she will lose both, but longs to hold on for as long as she can. Everyone in that situation would want the most of that chance.