' ' Cinema Romantico: Still Alice

Monday, February 02, 2015

Still Alice

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), not even fifty years old, has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Once a decorated linguistics professor at Columbia University, she is asked to give a speech at an annual Dementia Care Conference. Her state of mind, however, requires her to recite it page by careful page, highlighting what she has already said to ensure she maintains her place. Things are going swimmingly, until the pages fall from the lectern to the floor, and she scrambles to re-gather them, and it all appears poised to go awry. But, it doesn’t. She cracks a joke and keeps on keeping on. It’s commendable, absolutely, but also indicative of “Still Alice” itself, a film that simply will not dare itself to throw away those pages of writerly gadgets, of a carefully charted course, of positive vibrations over pissed off agony, and just let itself and, by extension, its exemplary leading lady run loose. You keep wishing Ms. Moore would discover the maudlin, this-is-how-we-feel-now music score playing on a stereo in the living room and turn it off. “Still Alice” could have been cold water to the face but instead is a fuzzy sweater offering warmth. It doesn’t want to unsettle as its main character slips further and further away; it wants to hold your hand.

Alzheimer’s disease, frankly, terrifies me. I’ve addressed before that notion of being stripped of both cognizance and memories, of creative expression, and the profession of “Still Alice’s” protagonist seems designed to explicitly address that idea. The very first sign of her forthcoming struggle, in fact, occurs during a classroom talk about communication, which wouldn’t be so eye-rolling if the screenplay had any yearning to push this contrast further. But it doesn’t. Her considerable intellect only exists so she can lose it.

What works better is the almost unintentional juxtaposition of a linguistics professor struggling to convey her frustrations with a fine actress in top form made to convey those frustrations non-verbally. “Still Alice” places its star in every single frame and essentially asks her to get across the initial depression of what’s to come and the spiraling confusion of what has happened almost exclusively on her own. In seeing a neurologist, the editing chooses to stay completely on Moore as she answers a rapid-fire series of question with an almost condescending smile, a curl of the lips that says, “This? Happening to me? Ha!” But it is. And the way Moore slowly strips away her initial nature leaves you with a person in the final third that you didn’t necessarily recognize in the first third, one whose cognizant eyes eventually give way to a terrifying vacancy.

When she becomes lost in the family’s beach house in an increasingly desperate bid to remember the location of their bathroom, the close-up of Moore is all we need to grasp the end result, the long shot switch to reveal that she’s wet herself winding up clumsy and unnecessary. She has more gusto, frankly, than the material and the material’s execution will allow, and so does Alec Baldwin.

So nimble at straddling the line between decent and callous, he plays Alice's spouse with an emotional deterioration of his own, struggling to cope with a better half that can no longer keep up with him on an intellectual level, eventually wanting to re-locate them against her wishes. There is a moment when she’s seated off to the side as he converses with his children and he blithely dismisses the idea she can even follow what they’re saying. You can sense Baldwin wanting to push his part even further into selfishness, but the movie always stop short, so much that I can’t help but wonder if there’s something meatier on the editing room floor. He’s clearly the influence on their oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), a fairly formulaic ice queen, but one with a self-interest that seems a chip off daddy’s block. Both these relationships hint at a fissure in the family as a whole, a fissure the film conspicuously never wants to genuinely address.

That fissure is also glimpsed in the film's most crucial relationship between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), one that begins rockily when the former criticizes the latter for eschewing college in the name of an uncertain future as an actress. But then, what's life other than a smearing of certainty? Alice is proof. She planned, she studied, she worked, she saved for a bright future, and then that future suddenly became shrouded in fog. When Lydia learns she may have the gene for Alzheimer's, she chooses not to take a test to find out for sure, a symbolic decision that resists advanced plans to to embrace the moment. Stewart beautifully conveys this sentiment because as an actress she's always possessed so much more "There's No Tomorrow" than "This Is The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life" bullshit.

Julianne Moore is wonderful but you leave the theater wishing "Still Alice" had the same conviction as Kristen Stewart.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I don't know anyone with Alzheimer's but this movie really puts it into perspective. Great job to Julianne Moore, she deserved this Oscar.