Julianne Moore is nominated for an academy award this year for the fifth time in her distinguished career: She lost in the leading actress category for The End of the Affair and Far from Heaven, in in the supporting actress category for Boogie Nights and The Hours. It may be that this is her year, since she has already won the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Golden Globe for her riveting performance in Still Alice, and the odds are good she will be taking home some hardware from the Oscar ceremony, as well. If you have a chance to see the film, finally in wide release, you should take it, but don’t go expecting the feel-good movie of the year.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a distinguished professor of Linguistics at Columbia University. She has had a long and happy marriage to John (Alec Baldwin), apparently a member of the faculty of Columbia’s medical school, and she has three grown children—her oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), a lawyer, is married herself and planning to start a family, while her son (Hunter Parrish) is in medical school. As the film opens, the family is sitting around a table at an upscale restaurant, celebrating Alice’s 50th birthday. It is a comfortable upper-middle class family celebrating the position and comfort they have achieved. Missing from the celebration, however, is Alice’s youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the black sheep of the family who has forgone a college degree to try to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress. With her father’s help (and without Alice’s knowing), Lydia has invested in an equity-sharing theater group. At the beginning of the film, this first-world problem is the only cloud on Alice’s crystal-blue horizon.
But shortly after her birthday, Alice is giving a guest lecture at UCLA and cannot think of the word she wants. It’s a very small glitch, but soon after she is home and out for a morning run, ending in the middle of Columbia’s campus, where she stops, suddenly confused, as nothing looks familiar. At Christmas dinner, she forgets how to make her special bread-pudding recipe, and chases her children out of the kitchen so that she can look up the recipe on her iPhone. But she still makes a serious error at Christmas dinner, forgetting that she has already met her son’s girlfriend once that night and introducing herself again.
After these incidents, fearing she may have a brain tumor, Alice visits a neurologist and, after a number of tests, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. As it turns out, the disease in her case is caused by a genetic disorder, and the odds are 50-50 that any one of her children may have the same disorder, and face the same future when they reach their fifties.
And that is that. The rest of the film chronicles Alice’s steady, inexorable decline one devastating incident at a time. Despite her memory exercises, her daily questions that she has her phone ask her, we see her fairly rapidly lose her ability to remember. Some scenes are excruciating—the scene where she cannot remember where the bathroom is in her house; the scene where she praises an actress’s performance in a play, forgetting that it is in fact her own daughter.
The film could easily be maudlin or sentimental or melodramatic. It is none of these things. It doesn’t need to be. Based on a novel by Lisa Genova and adapted for the screen by directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (Quinceañera), the story merely needs to show the reality of Alzheimer’s, the inevitable loss of the person that Alice was, to be heartbreaking. And Moore, as she always is, is perfect in her restrained, understated portrayal of a woman refusing to panic, determined to fight off the darkness as long as possible, and making plans to take matters into her own hands when things become too difficult and she loses herself completely.
But the film goes further. It also explores ways that the disease affects family members and how they relate to the patient as the patient continues to lose touch. One of the film’s best performances comes from Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband John, who begins as a caring and understanding partner through the first part of the illness, but clearly draws away from Alice—understandably—as her condition worsens, and she becomes essentially something that must be dealt with. We forget, in the wake of Baldwin’s brilliant comic turn in 30 Rock, that he can also be very effective in a serious role (think The Departed or Glengarry Glen Ross).
More surprising is Kristen Stewart (Twilight) as Lydia. She is given a role that allows her a complex range of emotions—she has the typical young woman’s problems with her demanding mother who consistently nags her about her life choices, but has the deepest empathy of any of Alice’s family (maybe that’s why she is an actress). She is the only one who can really talk to her mother about her illness, and will listen and understand how her mother feels about what is happening to her. She is the only one who is brave enough to form a new relationship with the different person her mother is becoming.
Of course, the script has made Lydia the most sympathetic role, and Stewart makes the best of it. One of the film’s flaws is the lack of development of the other two children. Anna is one dimensional, self-centered and unsympathetic. The son Tom is barely there—he has little to do other than escort new girlfriends around.
Something seems to be missing in Alec Baldwin’s part as well. His withdrawal from Alice seems too sudden, and we do not get inside his head at all to understand his final decisions in the film. There is a moment late in the film when he asks Alice if she “wants to be here.” It isn’t clear whether he is asking whether she wants to stay in New York, or whether she wants to die. And it may be that the ambiguity is intended. But as the film winds down, we move from one scene of Alice’s degeneration to another, and the narrative arc of the film seems to degenerate as Alice’s mental faculties do. But we also lose focus on the other characters—as, in fact Alice does, until in the end she has all but lost her ability to speak. The very end of the film is a little too precious, a little too tidy for the mess that Alice’s life has become. Overall, however, the film makes its audience feel profoundly the wrenching effects of the loss of self that the fading of a lifetime’s memories brings.
I’ll give this movie three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare, based on Moore’s Oscar-worthy performance and an excellent supporting cast.