Still Alice (2014)

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Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Written by Lisa Genova, Richard Glatzer, and Wash Westmoreland

Rated PG-13

Julianne Moore as Dr. Alice Howland
Alec Baldwin as Dr. John Howland
Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland
Kate Bosworth as Anna Howland-Jones
Hunter Parrish as Tom Howland
Shane McRae as Charlie Howland-Jones
Stephen Kunken as Dr. Benjamin

“It was about love.”

This superlative adaptation of Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel addresses a life-altering disease, and its ravages on a family. But in the end, it is a story of love. Julianne Moore finally won an Academy Award as Best Actress for a performance that is arguably her finest work, in a career filled with many brilliant performances. She was Oscar-nominated four times before Still Alice: twice as Best Supporting Actress (1997’s Boogie Nights and 2002’s The Hours) and twice as Best Actress (1999’s The End of the Affair and 2002’s Far from Heaven). I think she delivered award-worthy work in at least three other films: 1999’s Magnolia, 2009’s A Single Man, and 2010’s The Kids Are All Right. And let’s not forget her unforgettable turn as Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change.

Still Alice opens with the celebration of Dr. Alice Howland’s 50th birthday. She and her loving husband John (Alec Baldwin, effectively understated) are dining out with two of her adult children. There’s uptight married daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth, so-so as usual) and middle son Tom (Hunter Parrish of Showtime’s Weeds). Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is an aspiring actress, living in California while the rest the Howland family resides in New York City. Indeed, Alice is a renowned professor of linguistics at Columbia University.

We see Alice as sophisticated, dynamic, and accomplished, and it is clear she is happily content with her life. Following the celebration of the milestone birthday, Alice forgets the word lexicon during a class lecture, and later she becomes lost and disoriented on campus during a run. She visits a neurologist (Stephen Kunken), and the doctor orders a series of tests. Alice fear she may have a brain tumor. Ultimately, the news is more devastating: she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice eventually breaks the news to John and her children. The disease is familial (Alice probably inherited it from her deceased father), and her children could test positive as well.

We see how Alice’s family reacts in varying degrees to her deterioration. There are times when Alice forgets words, names, places, events. The cruelty of the disease is that it does not discriminate, and it is such an undignified end. Alice’s doctor even observes that the disease may have been sustained due to her level of education. Will she continue to decline or could she plateau? Still Alice shows much fear is in the unknown and the timing, more so than the reality of what’s to come.

Moore is luminous and heartbreaking as a distinguished, rational, and motivated woman, suddenly faced with the unthinkable. Unthinkable, yes – impossible, no. It’s clear Alice has gone full throttle in her life, managing a brilliant career, a happy marriage, and raising three successful children. Lydia (Stewart, never better) is the outsider, but she is also the most relatable, as Lydia treats her mother the way she feels Alice would want to be treated. When Alice is clearly losing pieces of her memory, an argument between Alice and Lydia is prompted by an act … that was either the tragedy of Alice’s condition or a mother’s curiosity. We never really know, and Moore and Stewart are experts are making this believable and moving. These moments elevate Alice’s condition from hopeless to hopeful, despite the reality of her condition.

There is a rich supporting cast here, and I especially liked the performances by Baldwin and Stewart (proving to the haters that she really can act, and act well). But this is Moore’s moment. This is Alice’s story, and Moore is so palpable and unforgettable in this role, there are times I felt the agony of watching this wonderful character’s decline unbearable. Co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are marvels in creating tension in moments like Alice’s delivery of a speech, or when she wants to hold her newborn grandchild. In life, we are often taught to value each day, to live in the moment, and to value love, above all. It is wrenching when it dawned on me there is no evidence Alice has not aligned her life with these philosophies.

Still Alice gives the statistic of Alzheimer’s disease a name, a face, a voice, and a soul. The richest pieces of fiction are grounded in some truth, and here the truth is in Moore’s flawless acting. Even in her despair, Moore’s Alice exudes hope and resilience. In her eyes, we see the dilemma, the courage, and the strength. Moore acts with truth and love, and there is not one wrong step in her performance. There is exhilaration in stories that touch the human condition so deeply. Still Alice is an exceptional achievement.

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