The movie Still Alice is about a New York professor, Alice Howland, played by Julianne Moore. Shortly after her 50th birthday, she begins showing symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's disease and the film follows the progress of the condition from her point of view.
Based on neuroscientist Lisa Genova's 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, Still Alice is accurate and compassionate, and anyone who has known someone with Alzheimer's will appreciate the film's sincere intentions. Apart from Moore's measured central performance, however, the movie, adapted by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is workmanlike. The filmmakers rely on obvious tricks of playing with overlapping and out-of-focus shots to show Alice's confusion. They leave out the paranoia, anger and physical deterioration.
In its depiction of family issues, the script appears to be following the checked boxes on a medical chart. There's a half-formed subplot about the sibling rivalry between Alice's adult daughters Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). (Siblings may find existing tensions are exacerbated by the illness of a parent.) The performance from Alec Baldwin, as Alice's medical-researcher husband, John, is so weirdly unctuous and menacing, you might suspect he's slipping drugs into her favourite Pinkberry Yogurt. (A spouse, struggling to deal with the changes in a loved one, may become withdrawn and distant.)
Among the more heavy-handed ironies, Alice is a brilliant linguistics professor ("I've always been defined by my intellect"). Her life is a testament to the benefits of being smart: She and her husband live in an elegant Manhattan apartment and have a summer house on Long Island. Their eldest daughter, Anna, is a lawyer, preparing to produce their first grandchild. Their middle child, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is about to finish medical school.
The only hair in this perfect bowl of cream is the youngest daughter, Lydia (Stewart), who skipped college to go to Los Angeles to try to make it as an actress. After Alice heads out to California to deliver a lecture – and has her first disturbing forgetful moment at the podium – she visits Lydia. They have a familiar argument about Alice's wish to have Lydia go to university and give up this frivolous acting business.
Why is the character an actress? In the novel, Alice, in her decline, sometimes imagined she was in one of Lydia's plays, living an alternate reality, like her namesake, the Lewis Carroll heroine who disappeared through the looking-glass. The subplot about theatre also allows Lydia to offer her mother the solace of art, quoting poetic passages about loss from Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters and, especially, Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
For the movie's purposes, we have the added irony of seeing Julianne Moore, of all people, belittling the power of acting. At its best, Still Alice is about acting, about trying to present a good front and how a great actress can communicate what is otherwise unreachable. Moore's gift is her transparent emotional presence: Even when Alice is trying to cover up, she's wonderfully readable. During many scenes in the film, the camera simply focuses on her pale, freckled face, registering her fear and struggle for control: Getting the diagnosis from a doctor, telling her children the bad news, talking to her supervisor at work. At other times, Moore simply interacts with her smartphone, on which she has left herself prerecorded questions, to monitor her condition for as long as she's capable.
Still Alice is being called a career performance for Moore, and although it may be one of her most poignant roles (it has earned her a fifth Oscar nomination), the part barely scratches the surface of her ability. If you've seen Neil Jordan's 2000 short film of Samuel Beckett's play Not I, which features nothing but Moore's mouth on screen as she rails against her trauma, you'll see how tentatively Still Alice edges toward that same abyss.