The 400-Word Review: Still Alice
By Sean Collier
February 17, 2015
Is it inarticulate to describe a film as, like, a really big bummer?
Because as reductive as that might be, it’s the first thing that comes to mind with Still Alice, the drama co-directed and adapted by Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland. The film is beautiful, evocative and brilliantly acted.
It’s also a total drag, dude.
Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, we meet Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) on her 50th birthday, at the pinnacle of a comfortable life in academia; her research into linguistics has become a widely-used textbook, she lectures around the world, her similarly-brilliant husband John (Alec Baldwin) is thriving and a trio of charming children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) are out of the house and (mostly) successful. As she begins to experience dramatic mental lapses, however, she seeks help from a neurologist; after an initial meeting, he brings up the specter of early-onset Alzheimer's. And, in the first of several low blows, it might be a rare, hereditary form.
As Alice begins to live in decline, the script walks a tightrope: the characters say enough to be refreshingly frank, but not so much as to reduce the film to an unending complaint. Moore’s performance is one of grace and muddled despair, by turns inspirational and heartbreaking. Stewart is equally powerful as youngest daughter Lydia, who must deal simultaneously with her mother’s deterioration and disappointment (Lydia has opted to forego college for an acting career).
Slight, directorial meditations on the nature and import of memory lend some weight, but this drama is almost procedural. It is interested in depicting how this disease ravages the mind, and a brilliant mind in particular; as an illustrative work, it is enormously effective, and should be heralded for forwarding understanding of Alzheimer’s, which is sometimes underwritten (or worse, mocked) in fiction.
I only wish that someone — and not having read the book, I’m not sure if I’m pointing at Genova or Glazer and Westmoreland — would’ve resisted the urge to insert a giant, dramatic red herring in place of a proper climax. A heart wrenching subplot leads to a deus ex machina that feels out of place in an otherwise serious film.
So yes, the performances are brilliant and the film is noble. If, however, you’re looking for someone to explain why you should sit through such a sad work, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
My Rating: 8/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark