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Entries in Still Alice [2014] (1)

Saturday
Jan172015

Still Alice (2014)

The Memory Hole

Still Alice is not a good movie. The technical aspects are top-notch: performances, direction, score, wardrobe; it's all there, and it's all great. But an Alzheimer's Disease movie needs to make us care that it somehow clawed its way up from the Lifetime Network's butter-lit valleys, and this flat, sappy effort by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland doesn't cut it.

Let's get this out of the way: I'm not mocking people with Alzheimer's, or downplaying the life-altering impact of their condition--any more than Radio, I Am Sam, or The Other Sister deliberately mocked the mentally challenged. Some well-intentioned movies simply land with a thud of inauthenticity. It's our duty as art lovers to recognize and exorcise the bad stuff at every turn. 

Julianne Moore plays linguistics professor Alice Howland, who lives in New York with her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), a doctor. The couple are recent empty-nesters: their youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), just started college in L.A. (which is code for "secretly dropping out to pursue acting"); eldest Anna (Kate Bosworth) is trying desperately to have a child with her husband; I can't remember what middle-child Tom (Hunter Parrish) does for a living.

In the midst of her over-scheduled life, Alice begins experiencing memory lapses. Words vanish from her mind during a lecture; she gets lost while jogging on campus. A doctor (Stephen Kunken) gives her a series of memory tests to help diagnose the issue. Turns out she's got an unusually aggressive form of Alzheimer's--and it's genetic.

I needn't go further. If you want to know what happens next, just ask yourself how this plot would play out on TV. Not in a multiplex, where you ostensibly pay for a singular, premium-entertainment experience; I'm talking about at home, surfing an ocean of content so vast and statistically generic it might as well be free. Think about that movie, the one where life stops for everyone in the protagonist's circle so that she can have Alzheimer's.

That was a classist remark, and I stand by it. There's zero conflict in Still Alice, aside from the physical effects of the disease itself. Early on, Glatzer and Westmoreland imbue their adaptation of Lisa Genova's novel with the dawning horror of perpetual, random forgetfulness. But as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that everything will be relatively okay for the Howlands. For most people, cutting a two-income household down to one is devastating; for the Howlands it means possibly having to make Lydia pay for school on her own (i.e. not subsidize the theatre company she's joined). John's sudden out-of-state job offer from Johns Hopkins is a three-minute crisis that's resolved by hiring home-care staff and moving Lydia back into the house.

I'm not suggesting that extreme health challenges are less scary for wealthy people, but how much more interesting would Still Alice have been had the Howlands lost their health insurance, or both jobs, or not had a large, eerily available family to support them? The film's single moment of tension involves a computer file that Alice set up for herself prior to dementia; by the time Glatzer and Westmoreland get around to paying it off, we already know it's not that kind of movie (tiptoeing around a real spoiler here).

It also doesn't help that we don't get to know Alice before the disease sets in. We're told of her accomplishments, and she's clearly an intelligent, hyper-driven person. But she also comes across as someone who spells  "introspection" better than she practices it. I was never allowed to feel the tragic weight of a real personality being slowly devoured by nothingness. Intimacy. Connection. These are what make us cry when a friend gets hit by a bus, and reflexively shake our heads when it happens to a stranger on the news.

Julianne Moore has received a lot of praise for her portrayal of Alice; this makes me happy, since she's one of my favorite actors. But not even a powerhouse with God-given gifts of subtlety can overcome a lousy, quarter-drawn character, and it's a miracle that Moore makes Alice compelling in spurts. The contrast between pre-Alzheimer's Alice and Alzheimer's Alice is cosmetically drastic and suitably assisted by ambience on the part of the filmmakers--but I can picture a dozen other greats turning in the same capable, surprise-free performance.

I haven't read Genova's book, and I can't speak to her intentions or those of Glatzer and Westmoreland. Perhaps they made Still Alice as a sincere, artistic response to a personal brush with Alzheimer's. But the film feels easy--calculated on a cellular level to grip audience members in patellar recognition instead of genuine emotional response. We will never be rid of moviegoers who bawl at the mere mention of disease, cancer, true love, dead pets, whatever. But my heart doesn't sit in the cheap seats, and filmmakers still have to try to make me cry.