Monday, March 2, 2015

'Still Alice' (2014) directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland

Hey you! Yes, you! You want to be miserable? Really really miserable? Then boy do I have the film for you. Still Alice is a precision targeted assault on tear ducts everywhere, with the secondary objective of scaring the crap out of you by revealing the world to be a chaotic, nightmarish hellscape from which the only true escape is the blessed peace of the grave.

This is the story of Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a 50 year old linguistics professor at Columbia University. We meet her living in satisfied metropolitan intellectual cosiness with her scientist husband John (Alex Baldwin). Between publishing some highly regarded textbooks and language and being a sought after conference speaker, she's managed to raise three intelligent, independent children, who've now flown the nest. Yep, with their financial security, healthy marriage and close-knit family things are just peachy...

Then her brain turns to mush. 

Following a series of unnerving memory lapses she visits a neurologist and is given a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease. Alice's intellect and language are her defining characteristics, and she's understandably terrified at the idea of gradually losing her mind. She's absolutely right to be scared; the rest of the film chronicling her inexorable, Flowers For Algernon-style slide from smartest person in the room to a burbling, confused piece of living furniture.

A typically depressing moment.
I'm getting miserable again just thinking about it. If films were judged on how effective they are at wringing tears, Still Alice would be right up there with other emotional nukes like Grave of the Fireflies, Requiem for a Dream, Amour etc. Julianne Moore, making use of every atom of her prodigious talents, drags us through a litany of horrifying humiliations. You'll weep as she forgets her children's names. You'll wail when she pisses herself. You'll feel a cold, existential dread as, in the later stages of the disease, she quietly asks whether she used to be intelligent.

Though undoubtedly effective as misery porn, Still Alice isn't that good of a movie. Most of its problems stem from an overly straightforward narrative. The central issue that this (or any film centred on a character with memory lapses) has to overcome is finding a cinematic way to depict the condition. At first things look fairly promising; the early stages are handled with a light touch, introducing dissonant strings to the score and keeping Alice in tight focus while the scenery around her becomes fuzzy. These techniques aren't going to win any awards for innovation but they're, at minimum, broadly effective.

But the directors fall short in depicting the later stages of the condition. The audience viewpoint shifts from Alice to her family, with the dislocating effect that we move from scarily uncomfortable empathy to a more conventional sympathy. Cinematically conveying memory lapses from the sufferer's POV is a tricky, but not impossible, proposition (see Memento).  This structural unadventurousness keeps Still Alice stuck in standard weepie territory, whereas a touch more experimentalism could have elevated it to something special.

Getting some bad news.
It's a pity that the film remains stuck in first gear, though Julianne Moore's excellent performance prevents it from ever becoming. She gives Alice a palpable aura of intelligence in the early scenes, her eyes full of flashes of inspiration, pride in her achievements and contentment. This makes her sheer terror jab like a knife in the guts, especially when we sense the fire behind her eyes fading. In the final scenes, where she blankly stares at her family through dulled eyes, shoulders loose, jaw slackly hanging open, the tragedy is almost too much to bear.  

She's so good that not even a lacklustre supporting cast can drag her down too much. Best of the middling bunch is Kristen Stewart as the youngest daughter Lydia, who believably creates an aura of mild frustrated understanding as she deals with her increasingly forgetful mother. The rest are a bit blah, particularly a miscast Alec Baldwin, who doesn't appear to give a shit about his sick wife.

By the time the credits roll, the title Still Alice has become a cruel joke. Whether it be intentional or not, the infantile husk of a woman of the closing scenes has nothing in common with the genius we meet at the beginning. This is, by all accounts, an accurate representation of what it is to succumb to Alzheimers, a disease that few without personal connections spend much time pondering. But after this, screw all those knife-wielding psychos, bloodthirsty demons and monsters from beyond the stars, this condition is the scariest thing I've seen in cinemas lately.

Still Alice is worth watching for Moore alone. But be warned, it will ruin your day.


Still Alice is released 6th March 2015

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