Directed by: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Written by: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland (screenplay), Lisa Genova (novel)
Starring: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
It starts with forgetting little things – details about schedules and missing words, brain farts if you will, in the middle of practiced lectures. It escalates into getting lost on familiar turf. For Alice Howland, this is how her journey into the dark recesses of her mind begins in the film STILL ALICE. Writers-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have crafted a heartfelt piece that, rather unfortunately, only scratches the surface. Chock full of missed opportunities to really immerse audiences in what it’s like to have a degenerative condition, the drama is bolstered by the ensemble’s performances.
Based on the book by Lisa Genova, Howland is a world-renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University when she learns some devastating news. Not only does she have early onset Alzheimer’s, but her disease is genetic, meaning she may have passed it onto her three children – Med student Tom (Hunter Parrish), Lawyer/ wannabe mom Anna (Kate Bosworth) and actress Lydia (Kristen Stewart). As her denial-riddled but supportive husband John (Alec Baldwin) continues to put on a brave face, Alice also attempts to continue with a normal life. Until she can’t anymore – and that occurs far sooner than anyone is ready to admit.
While this film should have been ground zero for the audience’s emotional heartbreak, it’s actually quite the opposite. Time and time again, Glatzer and Westmoreland take a spectator’s approach to showing us Alice’s devastating disease instead of completely immersing us in the throes of it from the inside. The only scene in which the pair manage to do so comes very late in the film – where it shows the distance between Alice in focus in the foreground and her family, gathered around, talking like she’s not even there. Given the subject of Genova’s source material, and the fact that film is such a visual medium, there was ample opportunity to put us in our heroine’s mind. But astoundingly, the filmmakers chose not to seize this brass ring, and it comes across looking like a lazy Hallmark Channel movie instead. We leave just as confused as Alice is trying to find the bathroom in her family’s beach home.
From the pushy score by Ilan Eshkari (who’s completely capable of doing great work, having done so on THE INVISIBLE WOMAN), to the constant cutaways to home video footage of Alice’s childhood with her mom and sister, the film feels disingenuous – and worse, maddening. We never get to know her deceased mother and sister, so those cutaways mean nothing to us. But perhaps the worst offender is when Alice makes a pivotal speech to the Alzheimer’s Association about her disease; Eshkari’s score swells as cutaways show audience members crying. However, we (the audience) are not. It would have been far more effective had the camera held on Moore, slowly going into a close up as she reads this speech – minus the manipulative cutaways and music. I also couldn’t help but wonder what kind of story we’d see if Alice’s economic class had been different; after all, Alzheimer’s breaks down race, gender and economic barriers – not just rich, white women.
Though STILL ALICE suffers in many respects, what it has going for it are the strong, stoic performances from Stewart and Moore. Their scenes together are amongst the film’s most genuinely affecting and engaging. Moore’s vulnerability and pathos elevates the lackluster screenplay. Much like Moore, Stewart gives a restrained performance – especially during the scene where her mother no longer recognizes her. They are at their best when paired together, working off each other. The pair bring subtlety and nuance – key ingredients this picture needs. In fact, the rest of cast, never dip into melodramatic territory – a true feat given the milieu.
While STILL ALICE does provoke thoughts as to how we’d handle a devastating diagnosis and stokes our compassionate fires, it’s never deeply impacting. More so, it’s ironically forgettable.
2.5 out of 5
STILL ALICE played AFI Fest on November 12 and 13. It opens in limited release on January 16, 2015.Read More »