Directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Stars: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart
4 (out of 5) Globes
There are few rougher sits than “Still Alice.” Not only is it an Alzheimer’s movie; it’s a movie where you watch Julianne Moore, at her most lovable, succumb to slow mental deterioration. And Julianne Moore isn’t just Julianne Moore — she’s Alice, a rock star linguist professor, renowned for her many books on cognitive theory. The first sign of her decay comes during a conference speech, when she succumbs to what appears to be merely a brief memory lapse. We then watch, in an excruciating but plain long-take close-up, as she receives the diagnosis: She has Early Onset Alzheimer’s, an incurable and not even particularly un-slowable ailment that she has to live with, knowing it will lay waste to all the knowledge she’s accrued over the years.
It’s tempting to read this as little more than an old school TV movie, only stocked with fine actors — not just Moore, but Alec Baldwin as her reluctantly suffering fellow academic husband and Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth, both excellent, as her daughters. Then again, it’s also tempting to give in and forgive its sometimes on-the-nose trespasses, especially as that position makes it easier to see the subtler and tougher film than was perhaps required. “Still Alice” is a hesitant weepie: It knows it has your tears — your probably copious, increasingly cascading tears — so it softens the blow.
There’s sad music, but the goopiness is measured, and the focus spread all around. There’s a horrifying, purely subjective film that could be made about Alice and her subtracting grip on her mental faculties. “Still Alice” does the next best thing: It’s a calm, unsentimental look at the process of dealing with increasing dementia. It throws in the big moments — her putting her shampoo in the fridge, repeatedly introducing herself to the same visitor, not recognizing Stewart after she performs in a play — but underplays them. Most of the time it observes the less dramatic in-between moments, when Alice can feel herself slipping but tries to carry on anyway. She mocks the disease, sometimes ignores it. At one point, after numerous humiliations, including bad reviews over the classes she insists on still teaching, she blurts out, “I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed.”
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The focus on an affluent, cultured, academic family — rather than more “normal” sufferers — sets it up for parody; this is a resolutely, almost comically tasteful film, filled with Upper West Side porn and relevant passages from the great works of theater (including a gratuitous shout-out to “Angels in America”). But the brainiac milieu only makes the tumble into impossible-to-articulate pain all that more affecting. In fact, one of the more surprising revelations comes when a doctor reveals that Alice’s academic-level mental prowess actually made the disease come on worse than had she been of average intelligence. Neither boatloads of money nor smarts can save the characters in “Still Alice,” who are helpless against the random, dispassionate cruelty of the universe. And not since Jeff Goldblum succumbed to a purely sci-fi disease in “The Fly” has watching a great actor gradually lose it being so gutting.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge