Friday, February 13, 2015

Still Alice

Review by Mialn Paurich

Julianne Moore is one of those actresses who’s been so reliably good, often great, for so many years that it’s been easy for some (particularly Oscar voters) to take her for granted. Which might explain why Moore is the designated front-runner in this year’s Oscar race for Best Actress. The fact that she gives a typically strong performance in STILL ALICE playing a Columbia professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s certainly doesn’t hurt. More than likely it’s simply a case of, “She’s due.”

I wonder how many Oscar voters who check off Moore’s name on their ballot will even bother watching their ALICE screeners. The subject matter is certainly daunting, and may even hit too close to home for certain elderly Academy members. It’s the same reason that, despite its awards patina, husband-and-husband co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s movie surely faces an uphill battle at the box-office. I’d love to say that STILL ALICE isn’t depressing and that Moore’s performance makes the pain seem worthwhile somehow. Yet, there’s no getting around the fact that watching a brilliant, formerly vibrant middle-aged woman like Moore’s Alice Howland slip deeper and deeper into dementia until she practically becomes invisible, even to herself, is excruciating at times. So no, this is not an “easy” film, but it is a good and solidly, cleanly crafted one. Whether that’s enough to make it a hit remains to be seen.

A case could be made that ALICE might have been a better fit on a premium cable channel like HBO where equally “difficult”—and difficult to market—movies like Ryan Murphy’s THE NORMAL HEART or Lisa Cholodenko’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE have found large, appreciative audiences. Certainly there’s nothing about it that wouldn’t play just as well on a television screen. Glatzer and Westmoreland (whose previous collaborative efforts include QUINCEANERA and THE LAST OF ROBIN HOOD) have never been the most visually adroit filmmakers. And the deliberately small scale of their movies makes them more tube than big screen-friendly anyway.

Adapted from Lisa Genova’s well-regarded book, the film tells a fairly straight forward story in an equally unfussy manner. As Alice begins to experience memory loss/disorientation and starts fumbling for words in the middle of a classroom lecture (a truly Kafka-esque nightmare for a linguistics professor), it becomes increasingly clear that something is amiss. But since Alzheimer’s is a disease more commonly associated with people several decades older, Alice is blindsided by the diagnosis when it arrives.

Her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and adult children (Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish, and Kate Bosworth) are sympathetic and supportive, of course, but it’s only black sheep daughter Lydia (Stewart, terrific) who’s willing to make the type of life-altering sacrifices that being a full-time caretaker involves. Lydia abandons an acting career in Los Angeles to move back home to care for her mom. The scenes between mother and daughter—with their roles now suddenly, irrevocably reversed—are the most wrenching and poignant in the entire film. (As someone who has spent the past several years serving as primary caregiver to a parent with Alzheimer’s, Moore and Stewart’s pas de deux hit especially close to home.)

Moore is simply a wonder to behold. In a remarkably subtle performance that’s all the more impressive for its utter lack of sentimentality, she allows us to witness Alice losing more and more of her identity until all that’s left is a blank stare peering into the abyss. The beauty of Moore’s acting is that she never loses sight of Alice’s soul, if such a thing even exists. Thanks to the brilliance of Moore, you’ll want to believe there is. 3 out of 4 stars.

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