The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Still Alice

There haven't been a lot of movies about Alzheimer's Disease, but those that do exist have tended to focus on the elderly. Sarah Polley's touching Away From Her, for example, looks at a woman in a nursing home as she gradually, tragically forgets her beloved husband. Still Alice is different in that its central character is fairly young and incredibly vibrant. It explores early-onset Alzheimer's. Between this movie and the recent documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me - which showed the legendary musician going on a farewell concert tour before his Alzheimer's made performing impossible the point is reinforced that we need to find a cure for this horrible disease as quickly as possible.

Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a respected linguistics professor. She's happily married to husband John (Alec Baldwin), and they have three grown children: son Tom (Hunter Parrish), golden child Anna (Kate Bosworth), and rebel daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Seemingly out of the blue, Alice begins having some problems. She forgets words here and there, and has an incident in which she momentarily becomes confused as to where she is. She goes for a medical exam, eventually finding out that she has early-onset Alzheimer's. It doesn't seem possible, given her age and academic accomplishments, but it is. The problem worsens. She can't remember Tom's new girlfriend minutes after meeting her, and day-to-day activities become disorienting. Alice tries to fight it, even giving an inspirational speech at an Alzheimer's conference. Her condition deteriorates, though, to the point where she needs constant care. The woman who was once a go-getter shockingly becomes dependent.

The greatest strength of Still Alice is also its biggest liability. The film, written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (and based on Lisa Genova's novel), carefully charts every step of Alice's cognitive deterioration. Great care has been taken to show the progression of the illness as authentically as possible. The effect is that it makes us feel like a member of Alice's family, watching a loved one steadily fade away. The tragedy of Alzheimer's is captured in painfully emotional style.

However, the film isn't a whole lot more than that. Every scene feels designed specifically to emphasize a step in Alice's degeneration. For that reason, Still Alice plays very episodically. There isn't a lot happening plot-wise, other than tracking her illness from stage to stage and showing how it robs from her, both personally and professionally. The other characters don't have developed arcs; they're here almost solely to react to what happens with her.

At times, that limits some of the intriguing elements of the movie. For instance, John reaches a difficult point when he has the opportunity to advance significantly in his career. Does he turn the offer down to stay home and care for Alice in her remaining days, or does he take it, knowing that he will need something meaningful to occupy him when she's gone? That idea is introduced, and Still Alice is admirable for doing so, but it would have paid off far more meaningfully had his decision-making process been explored in greater depth, i.e. as it affects him, rather than solely as it affects her.

There is also a distinct lack of humor to lighten the mood. Yes, the movie is depressing.

Still Alice has some strong elements, as well as some relatively significant flaws. Not surprisingly, the glue that holds it all together and makes it worthy of a recommendation is Julianne Moore. Her performance is masterful. Always skilled at showing the interior life of her characters, Moore does something nearly impossible, in that she brings out Alice's awareness that she's going downhill. If her husband and kids are watching her slowly disappear, she's also watching herself go and she doesn't like it one bit. Moore shows how Alice fights what she knows is a losing battle, refusing to give up until the fight is sucked right out of her. Scenes Moore shares with the also-terrific Stewart are some of the film's best, as mother subtly takes cues from her child about how to rebel.

The combination of a brilliant lead performance and a respectably honest portrayal of Alzheimer's make Still Alice affecting, even during the times when it feels as though it needs a little more plot. If nothing else, you walk away from it with an idea of how devastating this disease is for everyone whose life is impacted by it in some way.

( out of four)

Still Alice is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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