Review: Still Alice (Glatzer & Westmoreland, 2014)

Still from the movie Still Alice

In recent years there seems to have been a plethora of dramas about people suffering from Alzheimer’s (see below for a ranked list of the ones I could think of off the top of my head)–perhaps because it is too devastating and tragic a way to spend one’s final days for fiction to be quiet about the subject, to not imagine the horror of losing one’s personality and identity while still (at least at first, at least nominally) being able to physically function.

Adapted from the novel of the same name, Still Alice tells the story of a Columbia linguistics professor’s degeneration from Alzheimer’s. Only 50 years old, the highly cerebral and ambitious Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) at first attempts to hide her peculiar memory loss from her family and colleagues. But after a doctor diagnoses her with a rare genetic form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, she and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) know they must tell their three children: each of them would have had a 50 percent chance of inheriting the gene that causes the disease.

The film is a moving portrait of a strong-willed woman succumbing to a shattering illness while still trying to maintain her identity, dignity, and humanity. At the same time, it depicts her family struggling to cope with the loss of the mother and wife they knew and her new dependence on them. The relationship that undergoes the most significant change is the one Alice shares with her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who might be considered the family’s black sheep. Despite her mother’s repeated importuning, Lydia refuses to go to college, trying instead to launch an acting career through a co-op theater group. When she is well, Alice can hardly sit through a meal with Lydia without arguing about her daughter’s future, and yet Lydia is the only one who seems to have the patience to understand and seek her mother in the increasingly lost figure that Alice is becoming.

Though the film boasts an all-star cast, it is Moore who steals the show. Watching the opening scenes of the movie, I felt a resurgence of the aversion I felt during What Maisie Knew (the last film of hers I saw), but the distaste quickly dropped away. Alice is a role deserving of Moore’s copious talent; Susanna (from Maisie) is not. As zealous professor, as forceful mother, as struggling patient, as gentle victim, Moore embodies several quite distinct personalities while still maintaining an internal consistency between them all. Because in the fumbling adult who needs assistance putting her clothes on, we have to still recognize the woman who once stood authoritatively before an audience of academics describing her ground-breaking research.

Still Alice is a well-made Hollywood movie, but it’s still a Hollywood movie. It’s too usefully poignant that a linguistics professor whose life is to understand language and communication must be the one to undergo the loss of language, the destruction of her ability to communicate. There is nothing very tactile about her profession in the film, nothing that even makes it feel genuinely essential to Alice the person; its only purpose is to tug at our heart strings, a pretty cheap trick. The film also seems to me as though it is covering well-trodden territory. I bawled through the whole latter half, but that’s to be expected. Nothing about Alice or her disease surprised me: I received no new insight, little new understanding. (Perhaps the novel, written by neuroscientist-turned-author Lisa Genova, provides more depth.) It felt as if it were supposed to be a true story, but it wasn’t. Nevertheless, a decent movie I’ll probably recommend to my mom.

Films dealing with Alzheimer’s, ranked from best to, um, least best:

  1. Robot & Frank (saw this one at Sundance 2012 and loved it)
  2. Iris (biopic of the late author Iris Murdoch)
  3. Still Alice tied with Away from Her (Away from Her has the more intriguing angle, but something about the way director Sarah Polley adapted this Alice Munro short story didn’t sit well with me)
  4. The Notebook

No trailer yet, just this clip: