Still Alice

January, 2015, Drama

When it was first published, novelist Lisa Genova’s depiction of a college professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s was heralded as a riveting piece of fiction and praised for its ability to convey not only the tragedy facing those with the disease but also the anguished stress of family members inevitably swept up in its ineluctable progression. Influenced by her father’s battle with the disease, Maria Shriver became involved in efforts to turn Genova’s novel into a movie. The result is this obviously heartfelt effort with an impressive cast highlighted by Julianne Moore’ Oscar nominated performance. Yet despite its important topic and good intentions, Still Alice’s meandering storyline and fitful pacing fails to gel as either an insightful look at the disease or a successfully dramatic film.

Moore, one of America’s most gifted film actresses, has 4 previous Oscar nominations; two for her work in a supporting role (Boogie Nights, The Hours) and two more as an actress in a leading role (Far From Heaven, The End of theAffair). Here she plays a linguistics professor at Columbia in her early 50’s who balances a busy professional career with a marriage embracing husband John (Alec Baldwin) and their 3 grown children. Sadly, her performance is really the only reason to see StillAlice and sadder still, it isn’t as Oscar worthy as Hilary Swank’s mesmerizing role as a principled but desperately lonely frontier spinster in The Homesman.

After excusing her own small memory lapses and occasional moments of lost concentration, Alice sees a physician who provides the chilling diagnosis that this highly articulate woman is in the early stages of a disease that promises a very rapid decline. For the balance of the movie’s relatively short running time, the camera records Alice’s interactions with colleagues, students, her sympathetic but increasingly distant husband and finally with an estranged daughter who suspends her own career to return home and assume the role of Alice’s caregiver.

Co-writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have worked together on two previous films, neither of which suggests they have the skill sets necessary to do justice to this material. Still Alice never comes to life; it lacks a fluid sense of pacing, giving an episodic feel to the movie which robs it of the ability to depict this disease as implacable erosion rather than aggressively paced decline. Alzheimer’s progression resembles atrophy rather than collapse; as a result, its corrosive effect impacts those afflicted with it quite differently than those responsible for managing its ravaging decline.

Still Alice’s script attempts to compensate for this shortcoming by giving Moore the chance to deliver monologues that progress from frustrated lucidity to panicked confusion. She handles these moments well enough to sporadically bring the film to life, but in its focus on Alice’s descent into the fog of Alzheimer’s the screenplay simply doesn’t get beyond a simplistic portrayal her unexamined decline. It never adequately explores the impact of her illness on those around her and the roles given the supporting cast never rise to the level required to offer some balance to what she’s going through.

In the film’s final shot, Alice struggles to speak a single word of response to her daughter’s question; her ravaged expression doesn’t elicit sympathetic concern as much as horror. After nearly an hour and 45 minutes of screen time, Still Alice explores without explaining, in the process becoming a failed documentary than a riveting drama.

 The Verdict? A powerful topic sporadically energized by a gifted actress but burdened with a mediocre script and desultory direction.

 

 

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