Monday, December 29, 2014

The Agony Of Losing Everything: Still Alice Is Wonderfully Made . . . But Tough To Watch!

The Good: Amazing acting, Good issues, Decent character development, Soundtrack
The Bad: Thematically overbearing to the point of being unwatchable
The Basics: Still Alice is, rightly, one of the best films of the year, but its subject matter is so difficult to watch that it quickly loses any sense of entertainment and becomes grueling to sit through.

As Oscar Pandering Season reaches its climax, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Moore is an accomplished actress and the problem with her come awards time now is that she is, quite simply, too good. After roles in Boogie Nights (reviewed here!), The Kids Are All Right (reviewed here!), Game Change (reviewed here!), and – at the entirely other end of the spectrum - Evolution (reviewed here!), Julianne Moore has illustrated such a range and ability that it is hard to imagine a role she could not absolutely nail. So, when Moore took on the role of Dr. Alice Howland for Still Alice, the attention the role is getting feels in some ways like Moore is up this year for a lifetime achievement award.

Still Alice is a film based upon the novel by the same name. It is worth noting that I have not read the novel, so this is a pure review of the film Still Alice. Still Alice is a drama focused on a woman with a degenerative medical condition, which might make for a downer during the holidays, but it is the exact type of film that gets nominated for awards (and wins) . . . even if they only reach a limited audience and have an appeal that makes it difficult to imagine rewatching/adding to one’s permanent collection. Still Alice is very much the archetypal patient drama for an Oscar Pandering Season release.

Dr. Alice Howland is a Linguistics professor at Columbia University in New York City who is an expert in lingual development. After her fiftieth birthday, Dr. Howland begins to forget words and she gets lost while out running on the campus (which is a familiar place to her). After multiple visits to a neurologist, Dr. Howland is diagnosed with an early-onset familial (genetic) Alzheimer’s Disease. When she and her husband tell their adult children, they are all – predictably – alarmed. Alice’s daughter, Anna, and her son, Tom, get genetic testing done and Anna (who is trying to get pregnant with her husband) is alarmed when her test comes back positive. Despite Tom being relieved that his is negative, he is concerned about his mother while his romantic relationship falls apart.

At an alarming rate, Dr. Howland’s memory begins to degrade. She has to ask her students for what lesson they are studying and soon cannot even teach. Her husband, John, is a scientist and his attempts at advocacy often come across as clinical, when she is looking for emotional support. Dr. Howland starts to rely upon her smartphone for identifying people, remembering names, and scheduling every aspect of her life. As everyone in the family tries to reconnect with Alice, Dr. Howland loses more and more of her memory, her ability to control her body and even her ability to speak.

The site I used to right for had a simple ratings system for its reviewers: in addition to giving a rating on stars (one through five), one had to recommend whether or not they would buy the product. While I have vastly higher standards (my ten-point scale goes down to zero!), one of the things I have found useful about continuing to review is that the model that site used to have could actually be useful. Every once in a long while, I encounter something that is well-created, socially-important, and all around excellent . . . that I cannot stand. Still Alice is one such work.

Life is hard. Life can be impossibly hard and with birth defects, intolerance, AIDS, mental illness, behavioral disorders, sexual abuse and Alzheimer’s Disease in the world, it is hard to imagine there are people who exist in the United States untouched by some form of existential horror. With all that in the world, why would one want to experience such issues in their entertainment baffles me. I suppose for those who have not experienced any permutation on watching a loved one helplessly degrade, Still Alice offers the audience something. For the rest of us, though, it only offers a chance for the performers to play well.

And perform well they do. Given decent material and a good cast, everyone associated with Still Alice shines. Hunter Parrish plays Tom with a seriousness and intelligence that his role in Weeds (reviewed here!) did not allow. His entire body language is different as Tom from his most well-known character. Kristen Stewart gives a wonderful performance where she is not playing a character plumbing the depths of personal misery as Lydia. In fact, it is nice to see Stewart play a character who is something of a freethinker and artist without her ending up drug-addled, painful to watch and/or just skeezy and filthy. For all the attention Julianne Moore is getting with Still Alice, this is one of Kristen Stewart’s best roles and most varied performances.

Dr. John Howland is played by Alec Baldwin and he and Julianne Moore play off one another as a seasoned, married couple so well that it is almost impossible to recall that they played a romantic relationship in the fourth season of 30 Rock (reviewed here!). Baldwin gets through his character’s technobabble exceptionally well. Moore is predictably great as Dr. Alice Howland. The role requires her to look confused, appear to pee herself and slowly change her body language from being a confident woman to a sad, lost, husk of her former self. Moore nails it.

The thing is, it is easy to watch Still Alice and recognize all of the components of greatness. Moore and the rest of the cast have a great script to work with, but the subject is excruciating to watch and is anything but entertaining. Still Alice is like Love And Other Drugs (reviewed here!) but without the charm and romance. Instead, Still Alice is a stark, realistic, painful-to-watch film that is objectively well-created but impossible to recommend to watch and certainly not a movie most people will want to add to their permanent video library.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Voices
Love, Rosie
The Seventh Son
Song One
American Sniper
Inherent Vice
The Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
The Imitation Game

9/10 (Not Recommended)

For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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