Film — 30 April 2015

by

Rick Segreda

Winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Actress, “Still Alice” is a sincere humanist drama that lives up to, but does not transcend, its good intentions. Which is to say that this film, co-written and co-directed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, is a compassionate and humane presentation of the horrors of Alzheimer’s visited upon thoroughly decent individuals, but does not aspire to communicate any deeper or original ideas about the human condition.

In this sense, it is closer to the middle-class, and oftentimes middle-brow, made-for-television dramas than 2006’s more creative and ambitious treatment of the same subject, “Away From Her,” directed by Sarah Polley, and based on a short story by Alice Munro. The latter film utilized Alzheimer’s as a starting point to explore old age, marriage, sexuality, and the meaning of life, among other themes. Here, the focus is more limited to a well-meant affirmation of love and loyalty in sickness and in health, which is fine unto itself, but not quite the stuff of the most memorable art.

In addition, and with respect to made-for-television dramas, “Still Alice” bears too close a resemblance to a much superior 1986 television film, “Do You Remember Love?,” starring Joanne Woodward and Richard Kiley.  Indeed, in an age in which Marvin Gaye’s estate can successfully sue Robin Thicke and Pharrell for the most dubious musical copyright infringement claims, one wonders why the earlier film’s screenwriter, Vickie Patik, hasn’t called her lawyer.

In both films, a middle-aged, married, female academic discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s. In both films, the loyalty of their husbands is tested under extreme stress. In both cases the condition progresses with unusual rapidity. Finally both conclude with the main character saying virtually the same thing. Even the respective fields of the main characters, poetry and linguistics, have notable similarities.

This might all be a total coincidence, and I must add, I feel guilty even broaching this issue. It turns out that a comparable drama behind-the-scenes was unfolding during the making of “Still Alice,” with co-writer and co-director, Richard Glatzer, suffering from ALS, aka Lou Gehrig ’s disease, and in fact, he died only a few days after Julianne Moore won her Oscar, leaving his professional and personal life partner, Wash Westmoreland, a widower.

Nonetheless, I would be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that, as well as mention that both “Do You Remember Love?” as well as “Away from Her” have a notable edge over “Still Alice” in that they devote almost as much time to the personal struggles of loving but powerless husband coping with the slow trauma of watching their most beloved become a virtual ghost, as they do the deterioration of the women they love.

By contrast, the narrative point-of-view in “Still Alice” is Julianne Moore’s college professor to the point of almost total subjectivity.  Alec Baldwin, in a notable departure from his hard-edged and even hostile screen image and public persona, projects a surprising degree of warmth and patience as her husband, but for anybody who has seen the two previous films and/or has had personal experience of Alzheimer’s, the filmmakers failure to present the full psychic toll of the disease on the not-afflicted spouse does not do justice to the theme.

There is a secondary storyline, featuring Kristen Stewart of the “Twilight” movies, as a daughter whose decision to not go to college in order to pursue an acting career worries her mother. As an actress, Stewart demonstrates she can hold her own against veterans like Moore and Baldwin, but this particular subplot does not come across as deeply felt by the filmmakers, but rather grafted on to the movie in order to give it additional intrigue.

The same can be said about an even more minor subplot involving Alice’s other daughter, played by Kate Bosworth, who is pregnant with twins, and worries about possibly inheriting, and her children inheriting, the Alzheimer’s gene. The same worry befalls Alice’s son, played by Hunter Parrish, but that role is so small and undeveloped it barely registers as a memory after a viewing of the film.

What does make the film memorable experience is Julianne Moore’s deservedly acclaimed performance in the title role. Portraying a character who has coasted through life on her intelligence and self-discipline, Moore puts across the character’s painful loss of identity and surrender to the care of others whose love she always acknowledged, but never wanted to test.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. Interesting review and a movie that I would love to watch. If it fails to show the stress of the caregiver something very important is missing in this film.

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