Thursday, March 19, 2015

Still Alice

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m very pleased that Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her role in Still Alice. While there is some truth to the idea that Moore won this year as a sort of career honor - Still Alice is Moore’s Crazy Heart - it is also hard to argue that she isn’t as spiky and engaged here as she is in more celebrated films like Boogie Nights or Short Cuts. Moore plays Alice Howland, a Columbia lingustics professor whose unexplained memory lapses lead to neurological tests and a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice and her doctor husband John (Alec Baldwin) enjoy busy professional and personal lives and at first Alice is determined to keep up her schedule. What’s right about Still Alice, written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, is the way it charts Alice’s slow retreat from herself and her family in quiet moments rather than melodramatic disaster. Alice doesn’t forget to turn the stove off when making tea or how to use a knife in the kitchen, but she does veer from lucidity to confusion with horrifying quickness. The choice to play the humanity of Alice’s situation work so well of course because Moore can handle it with great specificity; note the way she plots how the awareness drains from Alice’s eyes through the film. 

As a whole I found Still Alice a bit too tidy. The emotional dynamics of the Howland family are more alluded to than dramatized, and in a post-Affordable Care Act world it’s difficult to see the need for films in which someone battles a serious illness and no one worries about money. Only the scenes between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) have a real spark. Lydia is an actress determined to live her own life and Stewart is well cast as the blackish sheep of an ambitious family. John’s slowly unfolding selfishness and the coldness of pregnant oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), both determined to move on with life, each deserve a fuller hearing. Yet of course life doesn’t always offer such opportunities, and Glatzer and Westmoreland understand that. The moving last scene of About Alice involves a simple  moment of connection, one that speaks volumes about what has been lost and how much yet remains.

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