Still Alice

Still Alice is practically an afterthought at this point, and will likely only be remembered as the film that finally brought Julianne Moore her first Oscar (she won as Best Actress earlier this year) after a number of nominations. And while Moore is certainly the bright light shining atop this structure (I’m thinking the introduction to All About Eve here), there are a few other performances worth noting as well.

The subject of the film is perhaps the second biggest star after Ms. Moore, who plays a Columbia University professor suffering with the early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The subject is fraught with emotional weight, as well as social and scientific significance. It might have become “that film” that raised awareness and instigated a social discussion of the disease, joining The Snake Pit, Philadelphia and The Lost Weekend as “issue films” that functioned as well-made films as well as conversation starters. Yet like The Theory of Everything, Away from Her, Dallas Buyers Club, and even The Pride of the Yankees, the strength of its central performance distracts from the issue or disease at hand (and with The Theory of Everything as well as The Pride of the Yankees, the other big distraction from ALS as a disease is who is suffering from it).

Here is the central sufferer isn’t famous, but does live in a relatively rarified world of comfortable New York City brownstones in New York and vacation homes. It’s as focused and limited a world as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which presents a similar narrow world. The difference is that in spite of the “small world” in which that film’s inhabitants lived and loved, the central struggles of its main characters were universally shared or understood. Not so in Still Alice, which focuses keenly on its central character and the effects of the disease on her and her family. We’re barely made aware of others who suffer from the same disease, and only as it supports the central struggle.

The film itself is relatively straightforward and direct, fairly well constructed, and could be described as lean and mean. It’s a better film than you might think if you’re only used to what used to be called “disease of the week” films on television. But other than causing some slight discomfort on the part of viewers to whom the disease is a reality or a fear, the film itself is easy to let slip from the memory (no other meaning implied).

What is provides best is a platform for performances, especially the central award-winning one. Julianne Moore is almost a hyper-realistic actress, and when she finds a good character fit (e.g., Children of Men, Far From Heaven, The End of the Affair), her performances elevate and energize her films. When the first isn’t so good (the Hunger Games films, Nine Months), she tends to either stick out of her films or shift into another dimension that only has a tangential relationship with the other actors or the film itself). Here, she has the perfect fit between character and her talents. Like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot, this is a highly technical acting challenge as well as an emotional one. Moore, like those other actors, hits every technical and emotional note purely and cleanly. She never works for sympathy, and gains it in the process. It’s the perfect connection of actor and role, and she makes the most of it.

What is perhaps surprising is the quality of the supporting work. Alec Baldwin has almost become something of a joke for his boorish off-the-set behavior, and it seemed as if his years as a TV star had perhaps robbed his ability to fully inhabit a role without bringing his mannerisms into the performance (e.g., Blue Jasmine). Here, however, he reminds us that he can be an actor of the first rank with a restrained, mannerism-free performance as Moore’s character’s husband, who is torn with his own challenges at work and at home as her disease progresses. It’s a refreshing, real and straightforward performance that gives one hope that we still have a first-rate actor here.

Some ink has been spilt—and it’s flowed in one of two opposite directions—about Kristin Stewart’s performance as Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is occasionally pouty, negative and attitudinal, and evokes Stewart’s most famous role to date in the Twilight series. Yes, she is giving a contained performance, but as the film continues, we see shades we aren’t used to seeing and undertones that work well for the character. Going toe-to-toe with an actress like Moore at the height of her powers, and coming out her equal is quite the triumph. This isn’t the actress of Twilight, in spite of the similarities of its pouty characters. If rumor is true and this is Stewart’s breakout year as an actress instead of just being a star, this may well be the first film pointed to. Lastly, Kate Bosworth heretofore known more for her beauty than her acting talent, gives a solid performance as Alice’s other (and married) daughter—a small role, but an important one to the film’s structure. She’s a counterpoint to Lydia and is someone who is affected, but less so, than the closer family members, allowing us one perspective on the affects of this disease on others.

In spite of its electric and often poignant topic, Still Alice is a film that will ultimately be remembered as a showcase, primarily for Moore. We’ve been waiting for that showcase for years, and Hollywood was grateful to find an opportunity to give her what some feel is a long-overdue Oscar. It could have been deeply affecting, and it even strives for some kind of resonance in its final scenes. But ultimately, it’s a small but solid film with a good supporting cast and a classic central performance. That’s not bad, but it could have been so much more.

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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2 Responses to Still Alice

  1. Carly says:

    Good review. I’m a journalism major at RIT and journalism is/should be all about objectivity. Julianne Moore was fantastic (as she usually is) but I found Still Alice hard to review objectively (and hard to watch at that) because my grandmother has Alzheimers disease. I’ve only met her maybe three times in my whole life, but she’s essentially done for and just hearing my dad describe her condition is heart-wrenching. What do you think, is it hard to review an “issue” film objectively if the issue has affected your life?

  2. Mark DuPré says:

    Carly: Yes, it can be. For the quickest example, check out my analysis (such as it is) for The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I wrote directly after the Still Alice review. That’s not an issue film, except if old age is an “issue.” But many a film touches–and should touch–soft areas in our hearts, minds and histories. Art should touch us deeply at times, but your question also raises the legitimate issue of the goal of a film. In the case of Still Alice, its main intent, I believe, is not to make us feel emotionally wrecked about the issue of Alzheimers, but to more coolly show us the tragedy of it and its effects on individuals and families. Some films do hit home deeply, but at this point, I can step back and look at each film as a work of art. But I don’t ever want to get to the point where I am untouched and untouchable.

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