In far and away the best scene of “Still Alice,” we see Julianne Moore from the shoulders up, sitting in a doctor’s office. She is Alice, a woman slowly succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – a fact that she has yet to learn. The camera doesn’t leave her face for a single three-minute shot, which gives Moore ample time to show off her incredible subtlety. Her acting is the story of this film, and though she is expectedly great in her abundance of histrionic showcase scenes, this scene is so quietly masterful that she could have been comatose for the rest of the runtime and still been in awards contention.
Alice is a highly educated linguistics professor, so she understands the weight behind the seemingly mundane questions from her doctor. The corners of her mouth twitch in amusement at being asked to spell “water” forward and backward, but her eyes knowingly narrow; he is searching for a diagnosis, and she is searching him. When sleep and exercise are mentioned, Moore needs nothing more than a flash of a cautiously defensive expression to remind us that Alice takes good care of herself. It’s a performance so engrossing that most viewers probably won’t even notice themselves failing the simple memory test given until it has already passed.
Though Moore does enough to carry the film on her own, her supporting cast members refuse to take it as an invitation to slack off. Alec Baldwin offers a solid turn as Alice’s husband and avoids falling into the tempting prototype of a tunnel-vision workaholic, instead presenting a career-focused doctor who is caring and supportive in his own ways. Alice’s youngest (and most prominent) daughter is played by Kristen Stewart, who manages to suppress her typical “acting is physically painful for me” face through some surprisingly touching and genuine scenes. History has shown that Baldwin can come off as phony or even slimy in some material and Stewart is always at risk of being a total charisma vacuum; though touches of their respective faults peer through here, both ultimately rise to the occasion.
The direction – a collaborative effort by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who have co-directed a handful of other films together – incorporates some interesting ideas relating to Alice’s deteriorating state of mind. Transitions between shots take their time shifting into focus as it starts to take longer for her to parse what is happening around her. Cuts will unexpectedly hop to new time periods, jolting forward in a rush of lost moments and confusion. These tricks are keen, no doubt, but Glatzer and Westmoreland never quite hit their stride and it doesn’t amount to much in the end. The glimpses of something risky or emotionally adventurous are instead lost in a wash of inoffensive (which is glib film critic slang for “offensively boring”) choices.
Visually, the film is bland and polished to a quality that can best be described as Academy Beige. The script is adequate, though it feels more like a series of setups for Moore to shine than a sensible narrative. The resonance of her sickness and fear is ever present in the film, but it’s tough to feel the same stakes for her underserved family relationships. Capping it all off is an ending so heavy-handed that even the woman with major impairments to her cognitive functions can discern the thesis, and is kind enough to spell it out for the audience.
Still, no single element of “Still Alice” is subjectively – dare I say objectively? – bad, and the result is exactly the sum of its parts. It’s like cooking a famous recipe without using any salt or pepper: all the major ingredients are there, but the resulting product lacks flavor. With a wry wink, many critics will call “Still Alice” forgettable, but it’s perhaps more accurate to say that it simply forgot to be good.Continue Reading Issue #31
5 December 2014 (limited)
1 hr. 41 min.
Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth