Friday, June 5, 2015

Julianne Moore Earns that Oscar in "Still Alice"

Julianne Moore totally inhabits this character.  
Full disclosure: Over the past half-decade or so, I have watched my grandmother descend further and further into dementia to the point that she is now a safety risk, incapable of being left alone. I'm not sure if that clouds my evaluation of a film like Still Alice, which tells the story of a linguistic professor's bout with Alzheimer's and the affect her mental deterioration has on her and her family. Did my investment come easier, my tears more readily because this film hit a little close to the bone? I can't really be sure, but at least now you know where I'm coming from.

Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is a harrowing depiction of the personal destruction that accompanies Alzheimer's. It's pretty straightforward and so it does have a Lifetime movie of the week vibe to it, but the movie is elevated by a brilliant central performance and a restrained script that’s chock-full of insight and authenticity.

Julianne Moore took home the Oscar for her work as the titular character, and it's a long overdue victory. Moore is one of the greatest actors of her generation, so I was behind her win before even seeing the movie, but, now that I have, I can say this is one of those rare cases where a past-due actor is deservedly honored for the performance in question as well as for overall career achievement.

I’m not sure I’d say this is Moore’s best performance, but it’s certainly up there. What’s so impressive about how Moore slowly peels layer upon layer away from Alice’s identity is just how little you notice the acting. The character’s decline is rapid, but the performance is seamless. This is a full on clinic in subtle submersion.

Although Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and three children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart, and Hunter Parrish) factor in to the narrative, the film intentionally keeps them on the margins. Generally, this works fine. The supporting actors all do fine work, and the reality is that the film is trying to capture Alice’s experience (as opposed to Away From Her, a film focused more on how a dementia touches those closest to the afflicted).

Still, even given that defense, it does feel like a bit of a cheat at times, especially concerning the Bosworth character. Alice is dealing with a genetic form of the disease and a blood test reveals that the Bosworth character has the gene and will therefore go through this exact trauma in about 20 years, and yet, outside of one clipped phone conversation, this developing is never really addressed with any sort of substance. It’s a dangling narrative thread that is jarringly pushed aside.

That gripe aside, Still Alice is a worthwhile film with a powerhouse performance from one of our greatest working actors. At one point, Alice pines “I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.” It’s a salient point, one that highlights that Still Alice is the rare film that makes us both think and feel, all while never giving in to mawkishness. Its strength is in its matter-of-fact depiction of the shattering realities that accompany this terrible disease and in the grace that can occasionally shine through during such a devastating eradication of self. B+