Outside of a powerhouse leading performance from Julianne Moore, there isn’t very much to say about the Alzheimer’s disease drama Still Alice. It’s a good film, but it never rises higher than the level of a really well done TV movie of the week that just happened to luck into an A-list cast. While Moore and her co-stars are bringing plenty of dramatic heft to the proceedings, the workman-like direction of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland and the somewhat static “let’s only hit the high points” adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel equals out to something that’s pretty good instead of pretty great.
Moore stars as Alice Howland, a revered linguistics scholar and professor who gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at only fifty years of age. The film examines how the disease affects her professional life, and especially the feelings of her husband (Alec Baldwin) and her now grown kids (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart, and Hunter Parrish).
If you’ve ever seen a film about the deterioration of someone going through Alzheimer’s – or if you’ve experienced seeing it happen to a loved one – it’s a little disappointing that around the halfway mark Glatzer (who has ALS and can’t speak, directing via and iPad while on set) and Westmoreland (a frequent collaborater with Glatzer who actually started out in porn direction), give up on the story’s more interesting dynamics to simply focus on how bad the disease is. The first half comes with a wealth of emotion and conflicted feelings before petering out and settling for a bullet point presentation of how ravaging the disease is. It’s disappointing because the film kind of gives up on its promise just as it seems to be getting started.
The down side to this is that Baldwin and Stewart in particular haven’t been given roles this great in quite some time, and while they make the most of it, the film’s second half shift in focus lets down their characters and talents. The plus side to this is just how much this somewhat missed opportunity allows for Moore to give the best performance of her career. If anyone saves this from going down in potentially well meaning melodramatic flames, it’s her. A scene where Alice pokes around an in-patient care facility while lying and saying it’s for someone else is a wrenching, and quietly heartbreaking moment. When the film has to show the rapid and aggressive escalation of her form of the disease, she’s equally as captivating. Her current Oscar buzz is justified, but had the rest of the film been made in something better than a perfunctory, soft focus haze, the rest of her co-stars could have gotten recognized, as well.
Overall, I would recommend Still Alice. It gets the sorrow and pain of one of the world’s most understood diseases down perfectly overall, despite suffering in the drama department. It’s well performed, respectful, and ultimately well meaning, which trumps any squabbles one might have with it.