Now playing at art houses, and a few multiplexes near me:
STILL ALICE (Dirs. Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, 2014)
Julianne Moore is a front runner to win the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Alice Howland, a Columbia University linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, in this touching, emotionally stirring drama opening today at an indie art house near you.
As this is Moore's fifth Academy Award nomination, it does indeed feel like it’s her time, but she really deserves it as this the best work I’ve ever witnessed yet from the actress who hails from my home state.
We first meet Moore’s Alice, her research scientist hubby John (Alec Baldwin), and some of their family - their doctor son Tom (Hunter Parrish), lawyer daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), and her nice-guy husband Charlie (Shane McRae) - as they are celebrating her 50th birthday at a posh New York restaurant. Except for a brief instance of confusion, Moore appears vibrant and happy among her loving spouse and grown-up, well to do children.
Then we see her giving a speech as a guest lecturer at UCLA, in which she blanks on a certain word. After she returns home, she panics because gets lost during her routine run around an area that’s normally well known to her, the Columbia campus.
These lapses of memory disturb Alice so fearing she has a brain tumor, she visits her Neurologist in serene scene that captures Alice in an unbroken close-up answering her unseen doctor’s questions. He asks her to have a loved one, her husband or a close relative accompany her the next time she comes in, but she doesn’t feel this is necessary when she returns.
The neurologist, now seen as Stephen Kunken (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, The Affair), tells her that after tests, including a PET Scan, the symptoms sadly corroborate that she has early-onset Alzheimers, and the news hits Alice and her husband hard.
The shaken couple gather together their son and daughters, which also includes Kristen Stewart as the youngest, an aspiring Los Angeles-based actress, to tell them about their mother’s diagnosis, and to let them know that there’s a 50 percent chance that each of them could inherit the gene.
From there we experience Alice’s devastating progression into what she calls “hell” – “It feels like my brain is fucking dying!” A painful subplot has her recording an iBook video for her future self to find in which she gives instructions to swallow a bottle of pills in order to commit suicide.
A large portion of the film concerns the relationship between Moore’s Alice and Stewart’s Lydia. Now, I understand there’s lots of hate out there for Stewart, but having no bias myself (largely, I bet, from not having seen any of the TWILIGHT movies), I thought she did a really good, genuinely affective job here.
Early in the film it is established that Alice disapproves of her daughter’s decision to pursue acting. Later, when the mother’s mind is failing, she attends a play Lydia is performing in and when the family meets up after, Alice has forgotten that this woman she watched on stage is her daughter. Moore’s reaction, along with Stewart’s processing of what’s happening, when Bosworth informs her mother who she’s talking to is one of the most moving moments I’ve seen this last year on screen.
In another affecting scene, Alice tries to explain her ordeal to Lydia: “I’ve always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation, and now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them and I don’t know who I am and I don’t know what I’m going to lose next.”
Based on the bestselling debut novel by Lisa Genova, STILL ALICE is not to be confused with any sort of Lifetime disease of the week TV movie melodrama. Directors/writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s sharply written screenplay features a tightly crafted narrative with an intensely real feeling tone; there’s no schmaltzy sentiment, nor any pandering creepiness. Even Ilan Eshkeri’s spare score, mostly made of quiet piano tinkling, is tastefully unobtrusive.
Moore and Baldwin have displayed great chemistry as a couple before on Tina Fey's NBC sitcom 30 Rock, but they are real, fully fleshed out people here not those comic concoctions, and they are as convincing as can be. Baldwin braces himself for the worst with his wife’s predicament, with none of his trademark smugness present. It’s a soft spoken, and affectionate performance, that ranks with his best, albeit in a small sideline role to the tour de force that Moore delivers.
Although this year has other worthy candidates, including Marion Cotillard for TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT and Reese Witherspoon for WILD, for what Moore pulls off in STILL ALICE, put me down for pulling for her to win.