Still Alice review
Heartbreaking, sympathetic lead performance
Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s (The Last of Robin Hood, Quinceañara) Still Alice tells an important message about the struggle and tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease. Based on author Lisa Genova’s novel of the same title, the film focuses particularly on early-onset Alzheimer’s as the main character, Alice, quickly slips into dementia following her fiftieth birthday at the beginning. Not only does the film look at the problem facing Alzheimer’s patients getting taken seriously, but it also tells a genuine narrative. The audience follows four-time Academy Award-nominee Julianne Moore’s (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, Don Jon) Alice Howland and her family as her memories, abilities, and personality fade from memory. While it may not win several awards this year, Still Alice will get nominated for sure. It should be noted that co-director Richard Glatzer, himself suffering from the debilitating disease of ALS, directed the film through communicating by an iPad application.
The lauded highlight of the film is Moore’s performance as Alice. Before her depressing descent into memory loss, Alice has quite the reputation as a game-changing linguistics professor working out of Columbia University. Her husband is a successful doctor, her oldest daughter and new son-in-law begin starting a family, her son looks poised to follow his father’s figurative footsteps, and her youngest daughter acts on stage in Los Angeles. After losing herself on a campus jog, Alice decides to seek some help that leads to painful conclusions. The rest of the film follows Alice’s struggle to find a place in the world now that her Alzheimer’s has inhibited her. Still Alice was filmed out of sequence, meaning Moore had to gauge Alice’s condition on a given day of shooting similar to Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. An Oscar nomination in 2015 seems like a lock for Moore’s performance in this film.
Oscar-nominee Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock,” Blue Jasmine) plays Alice’s husband, a loving spouse who ultimately makes a selfish decision. While not drawing awards attention for his performance in Still Alice, Baldwin delivers a solid, real performance as John. At first in a state of semi-denial about his wife’s condition, John quickly has trouble adjusting to caring for Alice’s new set of needs. His career looks to be taking a bright turn toward Rochester, Minnesota, and the Mayo Clinic just when Alice’s dementia begins to take an ugly turn. Many critics felt unaffected by John’s ultimate decision, but it is neglectful and selfish simply judging by his final breakdown into tears on screen. It was great seeing Baldwin and Moore act together again after sharing terrific chemistry during Moore’s guest role on “30 Rock.”
Vampire-tween-fiction icon Kristen Stewart (the Twilight Saga, Snow White and the Huntsman) takes the next prominent supporting role as Alice’s younger daughter, Lydia. The other siblings, Anna and Tom, have more stability in their lives and live close to Alice and John’s home near Columbia in New York City. Lydia works as an actress in Los Angeles and has a rocky relationship with Alice at film’s start due to the instability of making a living working in the arts. Stewart’s performance has a layered nuance—holding back anger directed at her mother sometimes so as not to waste it on someone who would forget it anyway. As her mother needs more help from the family, Lydia appears to be the most receptive family member to her mother.
While telling a necessary tale about the patients and struggle of Alzheimer’s disease, Still Alice gets disorienting at times—perhaps to put the audience in Alice’s predicament if only for a moment? It can get a bit confusing when these time jumps occur without a nod or even a subtitle. Some longer shots focusing on the main character (jogging or evaluation) make the film a bit more compelling as the long shot technique seems popular for this awards season (Birdman and Whiplash also employ long takes). The message about love at the end feels a little thrown in for good measure, but the audience would never doubt one character’s love for another in the film as the cast boasts strong primary and secondary performances.
Despite confusing time jumps that seem to coincide with Alice’s memory lapses, Still Alice ultimately sticks with the viewer because of Alice’s important speech in the second act. The characters and situations are real and believable—there isn’t a Hollywood ending where Alice finds herself miraculously recovering and her family selfishly doesn’t put Alice first when they should at times. The film doesn’t boast the score of The Theory of Everything, the concept of Boyhood, the impressive ensemble of Birdman, or the budget of Interstellar, but it should at least find itself in Lead Actress award conversations. More important than awards and statues, however, Moore’s compelling performance as Alice will make one misty-eyed and even fearful of developing dementia. Still Alice would have its audience take that fear and use it as a drive to eradicate Alzheimer’s once and for all.