Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

stillalice2An unfortunate part of the human condition is the deterioration of our mortal bodies where the development of maladies—some more debilitating and horrifying than others—erode our known sense of self that eventually leaves behind an empty shell of our former being. The cruelest of illnesses might be Alzheimer’s; an unstoppable attack of mental attrition that strips away everything from personal achievement, recognition of loved ones, and the last of your independence leaving behind a shadow of the victim through their own eyes and the eyes of the people that knew them. This might be the irony behind the title of Still Alice because as the subject of Lisa Genova’s novel and now Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film deteriorates from early set Alzheimer’s it’s difficult to begin recognizing that it is indeed the same person as it was before. The film is a respectable and earnest feat of melodramatic reflection on the disease as it showcases subtlety in the subjective point of view of how the disease affects the victim while never reaching the depth its potent and emotional content can reach. Despite their superficial examination that is often times as thin as an information pamphlet Glatzer and Westmoreland allow their film to be quite unlike usual Alzheimer’s films, such as Sarah Polley’s wonderful Away from Her or even say Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook, by focusing solely on the victim instead of how the disease affects the loyalty and circumstances of loved ones. Because it’s a purely subjective film Still Alice is clearly a performance structured film putting all the emotional range and thematic responsibility on Julianne Moore to make the film rise above its unimaginative script, run of the mill direction, and leaden side character exploration. And for the most part Moore succeeds at bringing the material above its conventional, melodramatic, made-for-television, commonplace existence where lifestyle privilege, a disconnection from life’s usual hardships, and the all too convenient full understanding of a family diminishes the sincerity and the pain the film seeks to embellish. Glatzer and Westmoreland’s Still Alice may hit its conventional emotional beats and serve as a launching pad for a riveting personal performance, but the film’s lack of grand vision towards experiencing illness misses the chance to create a meaningful experience where emotion lends itself to something far more than experiencing emotion itself.

Typical might be the overarching description of the films of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland who seem to bring conventional screenplay motifs and structures to usually unexplored material, such as their porn industry drama Fluffer, their focus on the communal Mexican culture of Los Angeles in Quinceanera, and the underage flings of actor Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood. With Still Alice, however, their personal struggle with illness gives their script a somewhat heightened personal touch since Glatzer co-directed the film with his husband while undergoing his own malady of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That personalized touch and undeniable respect for illness can be felt through their adaptation of neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s novel as it ventures through the gradual mental degradation of Alice (Julianne Moore), a professor of linguistics at Columbia University who has the seemingly perfect life of career, family, and marriage. The script for Still Alice is constructed around the subject of Alice herself where it attempts to explore the philosophical and emotional circumstances around the stages of her disease from her early mental lapses to her early set Alzheimer’s diagnosis to the discovery that her disease could be hereditary. With Alzheimer’s the victim experiences the paradoxical affliction of being both present and absent simultaneously expressed through a poetic use of vague time lapses as the script keeps the audience as unaware in the concept of time as Alice is. The moments focused on Alice’s experience are what gives the film its emotional weight, but unfortunately the film seems a bit too conventional in hitting familiar beats and uninspired in its large scale intention to take the material beyond a support group discussion on Alzheimer’s. Clearly Glatzer and Westmoreland had a perspective to give on experiencing illness, but in focusing solely on Alice they leave the other characters undeveloped, the domestic setting shallowly outlined, and the whole experience seem aimless in its thematic intention. Still Alice script has on its shoulders a desire to be an instructive guide to both the personalized touch of illness, but in focusing on the education aspect of its themes the film loses touch with its dramatic intentions never allowing it to become a fully visceral and poignant film.

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Another difficult barrier between the audience and the film’s emotional subject matter is the backdrop of seeming lifestyle perfection in Alice’s home, a luxurious circumstance that wipes away any strain of finance or familial misunderstanding that seems far removed to the experience of how average people live. Though it seems plausible it was written in a way so that the symptoms of the disease could be the film’s focus  it’s difficult to ignore the emotional beat  narrative unfolding, the convenient setting, and other lazy contrivances—such as both Alice and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) being doctors—that seem to erode the authenticity of the well-intentioned experience. Glatzer and Westmoreland’s direction, though competent in its thoroughly pedestrian way, doesn’t exactly service the material in any adventurous capacity as they become just as clinical and cold as Genova’s original novel was leaving a dearth of dramatic exploration. For every positive decision in the subtle revealing of Alice’s predicament there is an equally disastrous missed opportunity in her surrounding atmosphere as her children are written in when needed, her husband’s feelings of being forgotten are practically absent, and the generational bonding between alienated daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and her mother is also casually mentioned despite it being the strongest secondary aspect of the film. There’s even a sense that although the performance is devastating there’s no real risk to Alice herself particularly in a scene where when giving a speech her papers drop and she casually picks them up instead of really lingering on the confusion delving into the difficulties of Alzheimer’s and how even the best laid plans in dealing with your disease can always be ruptured. Still Alice might have a genuine intention to show a disease in its shattering fullness and witnessing the sad outcomes of its unrelenting effects, but even sincere films can miss the mark and with Glatzer and Westmoreland’s precise though bland direction combined with a one dimensional script there only exists a hollow shell of what potentially could be a full film. All that’s left for the earnest intentions and well-intentioned drama is an honest, riveting, and deeply engrossing performance from Julianne Moore who keeps the film honest in its disease reflection.

As she has done in so many performances before Julianne Moore has a way for making emptiness into a tangible pathos, most notably with her Carol White in Todd Hayne’s existential horror story Safe (another film about the effects of illness), her Amber Waves in Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn tapestry Boogie Nights, and her Laura Brown in Stephen Daldry’s suicidal reflection The Hours. And although she has proven herself for Award glory before it’s her physical, subtle, and steady performance in Still Alice that has the best chance of giving her due recognition for decades of work that is respected but often times unnoticed. Her portrayal of Alice in the beginning is that of thoroughly witty, fully abled, and undeniably intelligent woman who in her natural confidence gives us the pristine human self before she fully embraces the incredibly detailed mental degradation that follows. Giving us an effortless foundation of an independent Alice makes the performance all that much more effective as her facial structure changes from scene to scene, her eyes haze over in confusion, and her physical presence becomes diminished over time. It’s haunting material to experience whether or not you’ve personally been affected by Alzheimer’s or not and the honesty of the film’s personalized intention to reveal illness as a debilitating part of the human condition resonates with Moore’s perfect delivery. Unfortunately she’s the only inspired part to a film that wrote its side characters with an undeveloped disservice that undermines some talents (most notably Alec Baldwin and Hunter Parrish) and suffers from the leaden talents of others, such as the exceptionally dreary Kate Bosworth and the always strained Kristen Stewart. Stewart might be seeking dramatic redemption as of late with her decent turns in films such as Camp X-Ray and Clouds of Sils Maria, but her talent enters the realm of decent at its best and never once convinces you that she alone could tackle the eccentricities and details of a particular part. Though she has some convincing back and forth with Moore as the unlikely pillar of support for her mother it still never enters the mind as an inspiring dramatic performance.

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It seems that illness as a dramatic subject eludes most who attempt to tackle it mostly because there seems to be a black and white choice between subjective experiences of the victim versus the familial impact it generates to those around them. Well disease isn’t as black and white as convenient dramatic choice and for a film such as Still Alice whose noble intentions and earnest authenticity towards depicting the personal effect of disease that decision has led to a one dimensional exploration into a circumstance that is far more complex than the film allows it to be. In taking away the known impact of illness on the family, removing all strain in the difficulties of treatment, and foregoing any nuance in the secondary mother-daughter relationship drama Glatzer and Westmoreland’s film becomes nothing more than a launching pad for performance, a truly remarkable and damaging performance at that. But Alzheimer’s isn’t as tidy or clean as the film makes it out to be because in reality the average person experiencing this cruel aspect of life there would be immense messiness to their life, complex issues for the family to deal with, and continuous confusion as to what to do next. Still Alice takes the blank slate of a person with everything in their life and shows how the gradual mental degradation of Alzheimer’s impacts a person in all of its devastating fullness. Without a larger vision or a deeper intention as to what the film should say about disease, family, or self Still Alice maintains an existence as a modest and bland acting exercise that educates more than it truly allows you to feel towards a larger end.

Grade: C+

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