Year after year, come Academy Awards season, attention is turned to the Best Actress category, and a universal outcry of the dearth of truly great female roles can be heard from critics and fans alike, or at the very least an acknowledgment that the Best Actor category is far more flush with choice performances. This year, even though there are five outstanding nominations in the Actress category, it’s interesting to see how only one of them is from a Best Picture nominee, unlike four of the five Actor nominees. Who’s to say what that means, if anything, but it seems to suggest that great roles for women do not intrinsically appear in a majority of the films propped up as the best of the year. They must all come from fringe films, one-offs that mostly exist around, and for, their central female roles. Such is the case with Still Alice, a disease-of-the-week movie which seems to have locked its lead actress Julianne Moore as the current frontrunner to win the Oscar, but which lacks support in practically every other aspect of filmmaking. All that remains when the credits role is a magnificent performance that exists for its own sake, surrounded by mediocrity and a television aesthetic that is never able to adequately justify its existence.
I can’t bring myself to give it a failing grade, however. Moore is simply incredible as Alice, a linguistics professor with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, who begins to deteriorate before our very eyes, sending a ripple effect through her family which consists of her husband, played by Alec Baldwin, and children, Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart included among them. Still Alice is full of heartbreaking moments where Moore stands vacantly smiling, an uncomfortable grimace which tries in vain to disguise the fact that Alice has no idea what she’s doing or who she’s talking to. Moore communicates these moments of embarrassment with remarkable skill, and divorced from context Alice just might be her greatest performance, but wouldn’t it be great as well if the film around her were equally as wonderful?
Directed by gay porn filmmaker Wash Westmoreland (not joking there) and America’s Next Top Model producer Richard Glatzer, Still Alice exhibits all the hallmarks of a television movie-of-the-week, with supporting characters pulled from those ranks and dressed in some serious A-list skin. The most visual the film gets, in offering any inkling that the filmmakers cared that they were making a film, is an out of focus wide shot from Alice’s perspective looking on to her family who is talking about what they are going to do with her. Everybody else in this film is cashing their checks, while Kristen Stewart as the token child who decides to care for her mother fares slightly better, given a simple arc of initial estrangement to understanding.
There is really no reason for Still Alice to exist, except as an Oscar vehicle for Moore. It’s sad to say that, but the film does not have anything new to say about Alzheimer’s disease, or even any unique perspective on it. Being about “early onset,” it is content to only go as far as reactions to how early in Alice’s life it is happening. The film is so safe, and its family drama so perfunctory it might as well be an adaptation of the Alzheimer’s pamphlet you can read in a doctor’s office waiting room. Nine years ago Sarah Polley made Away From Her, a much better handling of the disease, which focused just as much on the patient’s family, offering up an emotional and poetic experience that is not likely to be forgotten. Nine years from now Still Alice will be remembered only as the film that finally won Julianne Moore an Oscar. But I guess that’s only fitting, as it feels like the only thing on everybody’s mind while they were making it.
The Verdict: Rave