Still Alice (Richard Glatzer/Wash Westmoreland, 2014)
If you want to see a truly poignant and cinematically innovative film about a woman succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, allow me to suggest the marvelous 2006 debut feature by Canadian actress-turned director Sarah Polley (only 27 when the film was released!), Away from Her. Shot and acted with poise and restraint, starring the great Julie Christie (Darling) and equally fine – but largely unknown outside of his native Canada – Gordon Pinsent (The Shipping News), that movie touchingly evoked the joy and pain of life and death. Based on a novella by Alice Munro, it was a perfectly crafted work of art.
Still Alice also has a literary source – the novel by Lisa Genova – and shares its main subject with that earlier film. It tells a similarly moving story. Unfortunately, its directors lack much of the grace and subtlety of Polley, and though Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right) tries her (mostly) best in the lead role of Alice, she cannot make up for the rather ordinary and plodding way the script takes us through her journey. I usually admire Moore – she’s one of the best actresses of her generation – but here she is unable to transcend the pedestrian soap-opera structure. So far, she seems to be favored in predictions for this year’s Best Actress Oscar, but for me it is not a performance on the same level as that of the other nominees. She’s good, but not that good.
Moore plays a noted Columbia professor of linguistics who turns 50 as the film begins, then soon discovers that her recent wave of disorienting experiences is due to an inherited genetic defect that will quickly lead her inexorably into dementia. Before long, the sharp-as-a-tack woman we meet at the start has turned into someone who cannot find the bathroom in her own house. It’s a tragic situation, made all the more so by the loss her family feels. Her husband, played by a distracted Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock“), is supportive but distant, unable to process the premature loss of his best friend; her youngest daughter, played by the ever-talentless Kristen Stewart (Twilight), struggles with the many unresolved issues we all have with our parents. There are other children, but they are not developed enough in the screenplay to have much effect on the story.
It’s sad. A lot of people cry. Alice speaks less and less. The camera isolates her with shallower and shallower depth of field. Surely we can do better than this shallow movie about such a devastating condition. And indeed we can: watch Away from Her.