“Still Alice” Movie Review

     Julianne Moore’s performance in “Still Alice” is the kind that will leave you feeling a wide range of emotions throughout the film.  Based on Lisa Genova’s novel and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Moore plays Alice Howland, a successful college professor who is diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease at the young age of 50.  The role requires a multilayered performance in which Moore exhibits some of the very early signs of the disease, but then deteriorates over time both mentally and physically.  To watch this unfold leaves you with a terrifying feeling as the realistic nature of these symptoms play out knowing there is no cure and there is no way of stopping what is happening.  How her immediately family deals with it is merely an exercise in helplessness as it becomes more challenging each day to have the kind of conversations with Alice they once took for granted.

     Initially, Alice seems to be living the kind of life all of us may wish for.  She is married with three grown children and is well respected and thought of in her career as a linguistics professor.  Though she often clashes with her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), over the fact she moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career rather than go to college, the remainder of her children seem to have raised the bar in the family’s success.  Her husband, John (Alex Baldwin), is also a successful college professor and remains steadfastly ambitious in his life’s pursuits.  All is well during the family gathering we see on screen, as it seems this Howland clan has yet to really experience a tragedy within the family such as a death or divorce.  Sure there is competition among the siblings, but at the end of the day this group seems as loving and normal as any family could hope for.

     But then strange things begin to happen to Alice.  A routine jog around her neighborhood and college campus results in her getting lost.  The high end lectures she delivers to students have strange pauses within them when a word she wants to say vanishes from her mind, leaving her speechless until she revives her train of thought.  She knows something is wrong and decides to  visit a neurologist, Dr. Benjamin (Stephen Kunken), and get an opinion on what it is she is experiencing.  The news isn’t good.  The series of initial questions Dr. Benjamin gives her are presented by Glatzer and Westmoreland as if we are watching an oral board video in which Alice is facing the camera and the doctor is off camera, but we hear his voice in the background.  We really get a look at this point at the marvel in Moore’s performance as she responds to the line of questioning in a manner that we know she believes nothing is wrong.  At first, she displays the kind of confidence where she wants to believe the questions being asked of her are simplistic and beneath her, but then she can’t recall a name and address she was told to remember just minutes before.

     Once she is officially diagnosed, Alice realizes the time has come to tell John and soon the couple bring their children together to tell them as well.  The story explores a number of situations in which Alice must deal with both the deterioration of her brain health as well as the day to day problems with how her husband and children cope as her condition worsens.  For every uplifting and positive moment, there always seems to be a significant step backwards as we get only a glimpse of what it would be like to deal with such a terrible disease.  So much so that at one point Alice quips “I wish I had cancer.”  At the point that line is said, the justification is meant to express the fact that people tend to rally around those with cancer as they wear pink ribbons, organize walks, and produce national campaigns.  Perhaps the filmmakers want to point out that Alzheimer’s disease effects millions and yet most people know nothing about it because it isn’t the kind of disease that regularly gets recognition as a worthy cause.  I think the power of Moore’s performance coupled with the countless viewers the film will garner if she converts this role into a Best Actress Oscar, of which she is nominated, may change the landscape considerably.  Oscar winning films tend to have that power.

     As a truly independent effort, “Still Alice” has the look and feel of a lower budget project that was lucky enough to attract three A-list talents.  The overall product seems to be more suited for a premiere on the Lifetime channel than as a feature film, but the power of Moore’s exceptional performance raises the film’s prospects and makes it a must see in much the same way Jennifer Aniston did with “Cake”.  It’s clear those behind Moore’s Oscar campaign have felt the best strategy was to release the film slowly city by city, as it took months for “Still Alice” to expand beyond its platform release in Los Angeles and New York.  I think the marketing department may have been wrong in this instance as I believe the film would have thrived on a national level at the moment Moore was announced as being the Oscar frontrunner for Best Actress.  It will be a disservice on Oscar night if there are still a high percentage of viewers who will likely watch Moore win and then realize they have yet to actually see the best performance of her career.  GRADE: B+