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Still Alice
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by Jay Seaver

"Worth it for Moore, by the numbers otherwise."
4 stars

Julianne Moore is up for an Academy Award in the category of "Best Performance By an Actress in a Leading Role" for her performance in "Still Alice", which is nice, because that's a big part of what the movie is for. Not the award specifically, and I'm certain that increasing awareness and understanding of how Alzheimer's Disease affects those afflicted with it and their loved ones is a big part of its reason for existing as well, but Alice Howland is a part where an actress can show what she's capable of, and Moore certainly recognized that when she took it.

It takes a while for Howland, a Columbia University linguistics professor, to be diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, as a series of memory lapses and moments of confusion add up to something that carries her to seek out a neurologist (Stephen Kunken). Initially her husband John (Alec Baldwin), a research physician, doesn't believe it, but eventually he and their children Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), have to accept it as a part of their lives and think about what comes next.

Let's start with the obvious: Julianne Moore is worth the price of admission. If the movie his false notes, it's not her doing, as she does an excellent job of showing how Alice is both intimidating intelligent and a warm family woman at the start, with all the overlaps and conflicts that entails, and then adding each step down the road in a way that seems almost effortless. It's a performance that can admittedly sometimes seem a little mannered, but not all the time, and Moore has enough moments where her struggling is subtle enough that the other moments become believably awkward instead of just played big.

That role is in Moore's wheelhouse, and she's been surrounded by a cast of people similarly playing to their strengths. Alec Baldwin, for instance, is given a smart and self-possessed husband to play, with a rigidity that his love sometimes has a hard time poking through. Kate Bosworth plays Anna as having picked up the over-achiever genes from both parents, giving the impression that she holds everyone to her own high standards, especially her little sister. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, plays Lydia as inheriting the same confidence, though she clashes because it points in a different direction. One does sort of wonder if she's underplaying how she, the struggling actress, is the one most driven by emotion and thus able to deal with the reality of the situation, or if she's been cast because she naturally projects a sort of muted abrasiveness, but it's something that eventually works.

The screenwriting/directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland don't really push their cast into uncomfortable areas for much of the film, and the rest of it tends to show the things we expect, often making it interesting, but not exactly presenting something that will make the audience get Alzheimer's in a visceral way that they hadn't before. It's certainly interesting to see Alice do memory exercises, or make little mistakes that are right on the border of things everyone does and things that are bad signs. The audience will certainly notice how Denis Lenoir's cinematography often goes out of focus around Alice. In fact, it may seem a bit saccharine when she stands up before a local Alzheimer's society and makes a speech.

And, if the movie had ended there, it would not have been very good. Fortunately, if not happily, Westmoreland & Glatzer (working from a novel by Lisa Genova) don't, and the last act of the film is kind of impressive in its cruelty. A thing that was kind of uncomfortable when it was first introduced pays off in a way that emphasizes how this disease wrecks all one's plans to deal with it, making one uncomfortable in a new way. There are some other missteps, but the moments when it shows a willingness to have people let the audience down, or bookend its opening in a way that is kind of horrifying, almost make one wonder if the earlier points where it seemed to be soft-peddling were just meant to soften the viewer up.

I don't think that's necessarily the case - if it is, it didn't make for an enhanced gut-punch. That leaves "Still Alice" as more successful than not: It does give Julianne Moore a role she can dive into, and does have a couple moments where it creates proper misery. Maybe it could have been more, but that's probably enough.

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originally posted: 02/22/15 15:09:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

User Comments

2/25/15 Helen Bradley-Jones Great performance by Julianne Moore; important issue 4 stars
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  05-Dec-2014 (PG-13)
  DVD: 12-May-2015

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