Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Movie Review: Still Alice

Still Alice
Directed by: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland.
Written by: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland based on the novel by Lisa Genova.
Starring: Julianne Moore (Alice Howland), Alec Baldwin (John Howland), Kristen Stewart (Lydia Howland), Kate Bosworth (Anna Howland-Jones), Shane McRae (Charlie Howland-Jones), Hunter Parrish (Tom Howland), Seth Gilliam (Frederic Johnson), Stephen Kunken (Dr. Benjamin).

Julianne Moore is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. That she doesn’t have an Oscar already is embarrassing considering just how great she has been in films like Short Cuts, Vanya on 42nd Street, Safe, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Magnolia, The End of the Affair, Far From Heaven, The Hours, Savage Grace, I’m Not There, Blindness, A Single Man, The Kids Are All Right, What Maisie Knew and Maps to the Stars. Look at that list of films, and consider the filmmakers she has worked with over the years. Even in projects that were not very good, Moore has always been solid. She looks to finally win an Oscar this weekend for her performance in Still Alice as an intellectual who discovers she has early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses rapidly over the course of a year – taking her for an intelligent, articulate woman who loves her husband and three grown children, to someone who has no idea what is going on around her. It is a great performance – as you would expect from Moore. It is also the only reason to see the film at all – which is dramatically flat, rather dull and really doesn’t do anything other than show her descent – in scenes that are sometimes awkward in the extreme. Without Moore, there would be no reason to see the movie – with her you see the movie simply to watch a great actress deliver a great performance in an otherwise unremarkable movie.

In the film, Moore stars as Alice Howland – a linguistic professor at Columbia – one of the leaders in her field about how children learn language (which of course, sets up the irony later in the film when she can no longer remember words no matter how hard she tries). Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is also a professor at Columbia – doing medical research. She has three children – Anna (Kate Bosworth), a married lawyer looking to start a family, Charlie (Shane McRae), a medical school student, and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) who has gone to L.A. to start an acting career. Alice gets her diagnosis early in the film, and the rest of the movie is basically her slow descent. She tries to maintain her teaching career for a while – but she gets lost easily. She wants to spend time with her family – hopes that her husband will take a sabbatical to spend her final months of lucidity with her, but that never happens. She tries hard to connect with her children – making the most progress with Lydia. But for everyone else, no matter how supportive they are, they have their own lives to live – and Alice deals with her descent on her own terms.

It truly is a great performance by Moore – who navigates the series of subtle changes as her mental state deteriorates from one scene to the next. It is a performance full of sadness, as she knows there is no going back, but she fights for as long as she can to maintain some degree of her old self. I admired the movie for following her descent all the way down – many movies would have stopped at a moment where she delivers a heartfelt speech about trying to maintain her life – but this one follows her all the way down. It also doesn’t take the easy way out, as was setup early in the film, so the ending is even more tragic than it otherwise would have been.
The film itself is nowhere near as great as Moore is in it. Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, based on a novel by Lisa Genova, the film doesn’t attempt to do anything other than follow Alice`s descent. That, in itself, is somewhat daring – but it does make the film a rather dull sit at times (especially when the film hits on pretty much every note you expect it to). This isn’t a great film – like Michael Haneke`s Amour, which was also about a woman with Alzheimer’s, which looked at a range of issues, and was a masterpiece. Still Alice doesn’t have the ambition for that. It is precisely what it appears to be. Moore is brilliant – and she will likely win an Oscar for her role, and given her career there are few more worthy of an Oscar win. It’s just a shame that no matter how great Moore is in the movie, she has been just as good, if not a better, in any number of films that are much, much better than Still Alice.

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