Review: Still Alice

★★☆☆☆
Two Stars

When Julianne Moore glided to the Oscars podium to accept her Academy Award for best actress this past March, she was carried there on the back of years of wonderful performances in brave, daring films. Still Alice, in which Moore turns in another tour de force as the titular Alice, is unfortunately not one such film. The film is staid, disjointed and inescapably naff, except for the few wonderful individual performances it features. Thankfully it’s smart enough to allow Moore to shine. What we’re left with is a terrific performance in search of a film.

Directed by husband-and-husband team, Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, the film follows the mental decline of a Columbia Linguistics professor after the discovery that she is afflicted by a form of early onset Alzheimer’s. The later revelation that her condition is hereditary places her deterioration at the centre of a dysfunctional family drama. She begins to forget words, faces, and places. In the film’s lone stylistic idiosyncrasy, the focus pulls in close to Moore, who expertly shows us the sheer terror at the centre of the blur around her. Glatzer and Westmoreland are at least able to serve Moore’s talent.

She struggles to convince her husband, played by Alec Baldwin, that her mental deterioration needs to be taken seriously. Baldwin is given little to do as the minor villain of the piece but delivers beautifully in his precisely underplayed final scene opposite Kristen Stewart, who stars in a supporting role as Alice’s daughter.

Stewart, too, is wonderful. As always, she’s an unpredictable presence on screen, filled with a nervous, lively energy. She listens, lives and reacts in front of the camera, rather than performing. Elsewhere, Kate Bosworth never quite elucidates the coherent core of her character, and the inexplicable texture of her face’s skin distracts amidst a cast of such expressive performers.

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The film lacks momentum beyond merely watching Moore expertly navigate the different stages of Alice’s deterioration. It lays breadcrumbs here and there which later pay off in variably satisfying ways. The film feels listless, almost cruel, subjecting its protagonist to debatably unnecessary humiliations. It crawls to a close, but thankfully not before allowing Stewart and Moore to deliver a note-perfect emotional resolution.

The film’s made for television feel is matched by an uninspired, drab visual palate and a vaseline-smeared lens. The film findspurpose in its greetings-card level belief in the power of love and living in the moment, but doesn’t reach for much profundity beyond the obvious gravity of terminal illness, and the loss of self. A terrifying premise is squandered by the film’s unimaginative, prescriptive qualities.

More so than its similarly illness-based sibling The Theory of Everything, which also brought Oscar glory to Eddie Redmayne, the film dances uncomfortably around its elitism-laced premise. Still Alice locates its true tragedy in the loss of Alice’s greatness, as her superior intellect and revered brilliance gradually leave her. The film’s tastefully decorated open plan homes and Hamptons cottages are the stability against which Moore’s unpredictable descent is contrasted. The film seems overly concerned with the terror of reality impinging on a middle class idyll.

Beginning with 1995’s Todd Haynes collaboration Safe, through Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Cookie’s Fortune, Far From Heaven and 2007’s Savage Grace, Moore has delivered virtuoso performance after virtuoso performance. She continues to be awardable for practically any film she has deigned with her presence. Even this past year, her insane, dark, vanity-free turn as a narcissistic, damaged former starlet in Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars deserved the lion’s share of recognition. It’s a far braver performance in a far better film than Still Alice, yet lacking the politeness required of any serious Oscar bait, and thus unfortunately overlooked. It’s to Moore’s credit that she is willing to take great parts in otherwise bland material, as she elevates the film above its limited aspirations. She treads a meticulously drawn line between tasteful and expressive.

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If the film ultimately connects, it’s because it is smart enough to stay out of the way of its talented lead cast. It’s a competently made film with little to say, beyond advocating Moore as the greatest working actress in American cinema. It’s a shame her Oscar finally came to her for a film so entirely safe and undeserving of her. Hopefully the ‘cache boost’ attached to her new gold statuette will get more of Moore’s avant garde fare into multiplexes.