Saturday, December 6, 2014

New movie review: Still Alice

Julianne Moore plays Alice in the excellent new drama Still Alice.

Disease is the great enemy of our time. Though we fret about terrorism, gun violence, and unforeseeable accidents, most of us will not meet our ends in these ways. The forces that conspire to destroy us exist less from without than within ourselves. Cancer, heart disease, dementia – these are the fates most likely to befall us. If we are lucky, we will live long, happy lives filled with love and joy before it strikes. Some of us will not have this good fortune.

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s new film Still Alice concerns Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She is famous the world over for her insights into language and human communication. She is a smart, beautiful woman with an adoring husband and three grown children leading mostly model lives.

Into this happy world drops the disease, bringing darkness like a power outage. The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is that not everything goes black at once. Instead, it creeps around your home, turning out the lights in one room at a time until nothing is recognizable in the void. It is this slow deterioration of mind, body, and spirit that Still Alice captures so well. Alice is in an inexorable downward spiral, slipping from her children, her husband, and the life she knew.

Played by the always remarkable Julianne Moore, Alice is a woman who has been defined by her intelligence. More than once, her husband, John, calls her the smartest woman he knows or has ever known and says that is what attracted him to her. Though we never see her before the disease rears its ugly head, Moore’s performance gives the audience a sense of the woman who would have been a witty dinner companion, a sage adviser, and a marvelous lecturer.

It begins with little things. The word “lexicon” escapes her during a speech. She becomes disoriented while out for a run. She forgets appointments. Then, it progresses. She does not know her daughter’s name. She cannot find the bathroom in her home. The cruelty at this stage, however, is she is lucid enough to know what she is losing, and it scares her, as it would most of us.

In addition to Moore’s wondrous performance, Glatzer and Westmoreland do an excellent job of forcing the viewer to see things from Alice’s perspective as her mind becomes less and less able to process the world around her. Objects and people come in and go out of focus, familiar places are cast in unfamiliar light, and conversations sail past her before she can comprehend them. She is unmoored, and each day, she drifts further from who she once was.

While this is Alice’s story, she can be our narrator only until she becomes unreliable, at which point, the storytellers must shift their focus to the family. This switch is handled so deftly and delicately it would be easy to miss. Alice wakes up in the middle of the night and frantically searches for her lost phone, which she does not find. The next time we see her, she is doing a puzzle in the kitchen as her husband and oldest daughter cook. He discovers her cracked iPhone in a drawer.

She takes it and tells her daughter she had been searching for it the night before. As she sits, her husband whispers, “That was a month ago.” Just like that, we realize she is irretrievably lost. See, the thing with Alzheimer’s is that the shell remains. She looks the same, feels the same, smells the same, but she is fundamentally changed. When she tries to interact as she once could, the difference is made crystal clear.

Based on a novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Glatzer and Westmoreland’s screenplay embraces the despair of Alice’s story and provides no easy answers or escape. Even when the opportunity presents itself to end on a note of triumph, the film carries on beyond that into the abyss of the disease. Alzheimer’s does not end in triumph. Whether it comes slowly or quickly, it always ends in defeat.

It is not a battle Alice faces alone, as she is surrounded by supportive family members who can do nothing but watch as the wife and mother they love dissolves before their eyes. Alec Baldwin plays John, and Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart, and Hunter Parrish appear as the couple’s three children. All do fine work, and Baldwin is particularly good, though they are a bit overshadowed by Moore’s central transformation.

Though distinctly tragic, there is something refreshing in watching a family on screen that is not defined by bickering, jealousy, and spite. They all care for one another and want to do the right thing. While the right thing in this case may be sad and unpleasant, it is justifiable and understandable. None of these people are villains. They are simply humans placed in an impossible situation and doing their best to act with tenderness and integrity. In Still Alice, the only villain is the disease.

See it? Yes.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

Incredible! Julianne Moore definitely deserved that Oscar. The ending destroyed my heart though.