Tuesday, March 17, 2015

“Still Alice”: Good Performance, Weak Film

After seeing “Still Alice” this evening, I tried to think of any movie in which I’ve liked Julianne Moore’s character. I couldn’t.

“The Hours” and “Magnolia” are all-time favorites of mine, but in both Moore plays the same wan, limp, neurasthenic person she always seems to portray—certainly not the sort of big-hearted, fun-loving woman I’ve always been attracted to and, in fact, married.

Moore’s IMDB file lists 76 credits for movies and TV, so there’s something about her that appeals, obviously. And she just won the Oscar for her portrayal of Alice Howland, a Columbia professor and mother of three who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers. Good for her.

I admired Moore’s performance in “Still Alice,” wondering to myself if she had finally found the role that suits her best—a woman whose life is visibly draining from her as we watch. Unfortunately, this Oscar-worthy turn was almost the only thing about the film I did admire.

Of course, it’s impossible not to be riveted by the early scenes of an Alzheimers film, especially if you have a close friend or family member struggling with dementia, as I do. You grip the arms of your stadium seat wondering when and how the next symptoms of forgetfulness will embarrass Alice.

Once Alice’s mind goes blank, however, the movie does too. All of the drama of “Still Alice” occurs in the head and face and heart of the central character. Once she becomes a cypher, the movie dies.

That’s because—with the one exception of Kristen Stewart as Alice’s youngest child, Lydia—the secondary characters are deader than disabled Alice. Especially Alec Baldwin, as her husband Tom. He is as effective as a glacial erratic that somehow found its way into the Howland living room. Other than a couple of perfunctory sobs near the closing, Baldwin is as bulky and lifeless as a boulder.

Yes, I understand that Tom is career-driven and cannot reign in his ambition long enough to take care of his wife. Good moral lesson that. But, golly, almost any other actor would have made me care the teeniest bit about the moral dilemma in which Tom finds himself. Baldwin doesn’t even seem to notice.

Stewart’s Lydia is the exception, but unfortunately the film saddles her with reciting, at the very end, a long piece of script Lydia is working on as an actress—without ever telling us what the script is. So Stewart is given a final speech that no viewer can fully relate to.

After that, there is one last exchange between Alice and Lydia that is certainly moving, or meant to be so, but by then I was as dead inside as any character.

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