Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review: "Still Alice"

“Still Alice” has been the phantom of the awards season, much talked about but rarely seen. (At least outside of L.A. and New York.)

Sony, which had a few problems awhile back you may have heard about, declined to screen the film for many regional critic groups, including here in Indiana. And yet star Julianne Moore has been running the table during the awards cycle, racking up a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild, among other prizes, and is now seen as a mortal lock to take home the Oscar.

So I went into a press screening in a state that could best be described as a combination of high anticipation and annoyance. I came out knowing I had just seen the finest performance of the year --actor or actress, lead or supporting -- as well as one of the best movies of 2014.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a fantastically successful woman who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. A linguistics professor at Columbia University who has always defined herself by her titanic intellect, Alice is forced to deal with rapidly losing her ability to remember words, her lifetime of research, and eventually simple things like the location of the bathroom or the name of her eldest child.

It’s the performance of a career, as Moore is utterly convincing as Alice rages, despairs, fights and eventually comes to accept her fate -- “Mastering,” as she puts it, “the art of losing.”

“I wish I had a cancer,” she says at one point, and she means it. “I wouldn’t feel so ashamed.”

Writer/director team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland previously made the little-seen (but quite good) “The Last of Robin Hood” a couple of years ago. In adapting the novel by Lisa Genova, they eschew an emphasis on plot and secondary characters, dumping any distractions to focus on their star’s incredible screen presence.

If you think “Still Alice” falls into the sappy “disease of the week” type of filmmaking, then I’m here to tell you there is not a single moment that is maudlin or contrived. We never catch Moore playing to the cameras or exaggerating a moment. If anything, she keeps things close to her vest, as a woman with a strong internal dialogue would.

For instance, her diagnosis is not a complete shock to her. Alice is smart enough to know that she’s been slipping, e.g., having to pause during a lecture to recall the term “wordstock.” Not exactly surprising, given its obscurity. But then she gets lost while jogging on the university campus, or introduces herself to her son’s new girlfriend moments after previously doing so.

Alec Baldwin plays her husband, John, and Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish play their children. All give trim and tidy performances, in the sorts of roles that are written to showcase the leading actress. The kids don’t have too much identity on their own, other than Stewart is an aspiring actress who feels unsupported, and Bosworth is her mother’s spitting image in terms of drive and ambition.

Baldwin is quite adept as the husband, a man who must balance his genuine devotion to his wife with his own considerable professional aspirations. It’s a smart and observant take on the loved ones of those who are dying, who must give them all the care and support they need, while also making their own plans for what comes after. How crushing, how true.

I also quite admired Stephen Kunken as Alice’s doctor, who strikes a good balance between being a clinician, emotional bulwark and booster.

Having been so frustrated at being denied the chance to see “Still Alice,” I’m now over the moon that I finally have. What craftsmanship, dedication and poise in this indelible portrait.

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