Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: "Still Alice"

Director(s): Wash Westmoreland & Richard Glatzer
Runtime: 101 minutes

The cruel irony of Still Alice, a sensitive and efficient drama about Alzheimer's, is that it's largely forgettable. This fourth collaboration between directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer benefits from a handful of beautiful performances and a restrained approach to the subject matter. However, by the time it's over, Still Alice has barely had a chance to address the dynamics of the story that could have distinguished the film from similar narratives. 

The most interesting part of Still Alice comes quite early, when linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) learns that she has Alzheimer's. The diagnosis is frightening on its own, but there's more: Alice's Alzheimer's is a rare type that is passed down genetically, thus putting her three children at risk. This angle is skillfully introduced, especially in the scene where Alice and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) break the news to the kids. But it doesn't take long for this side of the story to evaporate. Westmoreland and Glatzer seemingly stumble upon a land mine of an issue (the guilt and grief of passing down something that's out of your control) and then run away from it. 

Whether it's Alzheimer's or cancer, illness narratives always walk a fine line when it comes to how they deal with the situation. To their credit, the directors avoid cheap sentimentality or emotional manipulation. Unfortunately, they do this by acting timid, rather than economical. Still Alice is a tasteful movie, but that refinement isn't enough to mask the weaknesses of the writing.

The actual portrayal of the disease is far better, in no small part thanks to Moore's lovely work. The script carefully introduces and accelerates Alice's failing memory, giving the aggressive disease a natural progression rather than confining it to dramatically convenient bursts. Moore does her best to add extra heft to a screenplay that is often too safe for its own good. She is often heartbreaking in the role without begging for one's sympathy. Really, the only reason this isn't one of her absolute best performances is due to the limitations of the writing, which relies more on basic details than identifiable character traits to earn sympathy (she has Alzheimer's...doesn't that suck?).

Even though the writing leaves quite a bit to be desired, Still Alice avoids falling flat on its face. The performances are all quite good, with Kristen Stewart turning in the best work of the supporting cast as Lydia, Alice's daughter and a struggling actress. The pacing is quite taut, never leaving one in a fog the way Alice often wanders through the movie. 

Unfortunately, nothing captures Still Alice better than its final scene. The moment is quite moving, but then the film simply ends. Still Alice appears to exist in a cinematic vacuum which doesn't serve it well from any angle. As a study of Alzheimer's, it brings nothing new to its story, and as a character piece it never pushes beyond the fundamentals required to make us feel sad for a little bit. In telling the story of a woman losing touch with her life, Westmoreland and Glatzer have forgotten to give Still Alice any personality or greater point. It's impossible to have an identity crisis when there's no identity to begin with.

Grade: C+

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