We spoke about the prevalence of the “prestige picture” when The Imitation Game was released. That trend will only continue as we move through December. More and more “Academy Award-worthy performances” will see the light of day. The latest is Julianne Moore’s starring turn in Still Alice, a role that almost certainly guarantees her a nomination for Best Actress.
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice follows newly-50 Columbia University professor Alice Howland (Moore) as she struggles with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her perfect life with her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown-up children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish) is completely upended by the diagnosis, and she tries to maintain her dignity as everything that defines her begins to slip away.
The movie – written and directed by married filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland – was a surprise critical success at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, mostly due to the strength of Moore’s portrayal of a woman losing herself. All of that praise is highly deserved, as Moore delivers a totally engaging and absorbing performance, without the aid of exaggerated weight loss or makeup effects. Sure, her physical appearance becomes more unkempt as her condition worsens, but the deterioration is well conveyed through Moore’s acting. Moore turns what could be rote, emotional breakdowns into harrowing scenes of tension. Moments wherein Alice can no longer find the bathroom or loses grip on her daughter’s identity backstage at a play feel like something out of a horror movie. But the monster isn’t something Alice can kill.
Most of these great scenes come in the film’s superior first half. As Alice loses more and more of her personality, more of the narrative (as sparse as it is) shifts to her family. Unfortunately, all of these characters are emotionally flat. Moore and Baldwin clearly have some chemistry, as evidenced by their work together on 30 Rock, but there are no levels to Baldwin’s John (even his character’s name is boring); Alice’s husband merely stays firmly rooted in the position of the supportive but frustrated husband. If this is a conscious choice by the filmmakers to reflect Alice’s dulled senses (a dubious proposition given the fact that Stewart and Bosworth were hardly charismatic to begin with), it is an ineffective one.
It is hard to tell, as I am wholly unfamiliar with the works of Glatzer and Westmoreland (Quinceañera, The Last of Robin Hood), but the the directors do make some deft filmmaking choices throughout Still Alice that cannot be denied. As Alice’s condition worsens, the scenes begin to cut faster and faster, with bigger gaps in between. We lose context for these moments, and are treated to random flashes from Alice’s childhood – it is as if we are drifting in and out of lucidity along with this character. This intimate depiction of the disease makes the film worthwhile.
However, that same intensity also makes the film almost unwatchable. In this endeavor it is practically designed solely to make the viewer cry. There is no real plot to the movie besides “woman has Alzheimer’s,” not that there needs to be. This fact just further shows that Still Alice‘s intent is to manipulate you. Moore’s commitment almost earns that manipulation, though.
Still Alice is the kind of film that sweeps the viewer up in the moment, but loses its impact the further removed he or she is from its event horizon. The lack of substance and abundance of unsubtle emotional prompts make themselves clear. Yes, the characters just gave Alice a standing ovation; and yes, that moment there feels like a subtle condemnation of death with dignity; and yes, those memories all look like clichéd super 8 film stock. After a whole, the picture as a whole can almost be denied, but Moore’s performance cannot.