Still Alice
  • Still Alice

The ads for Still Alice (which is currently playing around town) make it seem less like a film and more like part of a PR campaign to win Julianne Moore an Oscar. Having seen it, I’d say that’s a fair representation. Alice often calls upon Moore to illustrate some symptom of Alzheimer’s disease or to remind us of the character’s integrity in the face of suffering. Moore performs these things with the care and consideration you’d expect from an actress of her caliber, but the film gives us little to consider beyond her performance and the basic facts of Alzheimer’s disease. Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, who wrote and directed, grant each of the supporting characters just one or two distinctive traits, if that. Their direction is competent but never visually compelling, the pacing is flaccid, and the storytelling is unadorned. Moore’s technical accomplishment is the constant center of attention, and this ultimately distracts from the filmmakers’ obvious sincerity in raising awareness of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice‘s press materials emphasize that Moore spent four months researching Alzheimer’s in preparation for her role, meeting with a number of doctors and patients. (They also emphasize that Glatzer has been in the throes of ALS for the past three years, making the film’s production a physical triumph for him as well.) Given Moore’s commitment and her good record, viewers can safely assume that she does a fine job and that they’ll leave the movie with a better understanding of the disease—in short, that Alice is a movie one can commend without actually having to watch. As it plays, it’s a slog, weighted down by good intentions and its overdetermination to sell us on Moore. Ironically, Alice works so hard to make Moore seem like a great actress that it distorts the qualities that have made her a consistently good one.

Moore’s strongest talent is her ability to establish a sense of intimacy or familiarity with seemingly little effort. Starting from there, she can move gracefully to expressions of vulnerability, contempt, or attraction. She’s most alive onscreen when playing characters who are confident, warm, overtly sexual, or else acutely aware of their own bodies. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing her characters in Savage Grace, The Kids Are All Right, or Don Jon—or at least playing them as well. Like Catherine Deneuve, Moore seems to get more comfortable in her skin the more she ages, and as with Deneuve, this evolution feels less the result of life experience than of the refinement of her craft. Even when Moore is out of her element (broad comedy, in particular, doesn’t seem to suit her) or stuck in a role that doesn’t really challenge her (like her supporting turns in Non-Stop or the latest Hunger Games feature), she never acts as though she’s above the film in question.

Savage Grace (2007)
  • Savage Grace (2007)

One almost always gets the impression that Moore has thought out her character beforehand, a cerebral approach that shows the influence of stage acting on her craft. This approach can have its limitations. Moore isn’t entirely convincing when she plays naive (as in Boogie Nights and The Kids) or flat-out stupid (as in Cookie’s Fortune), but one accepts her because she seems to grasp the essence of these qualities and what they mean in the scheme of the film. Small wonder that two of her most iconic performances (in Safe and Far From Heaven) were directed by Todd Haynes, an intellectual whose films comment on the cultural legacy of other films. Moore acts like she’s engaging with the script as a text, for better and for worse—I can’t readily recall an instance where her performance elevated an otherwise mediocre film to the point of recommendation.

Moore’s played her share of mistresses and housewives (in Surviving Picasso; Magnolia; The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio; and most of the other films cited in this paragraph), but when she has, she’s always underscored the character’s basic intelligence and potential for deep feeling. In Grace and Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, she inverts this dynamic to fascinating effect, playing posh, socially accomplished women who are more vulnerable and messed up than they know.

I consider those performances to be among Moore’s most fascinating, and one sees traces of them in Still Alice. Here the actress plays a Columbia University linguistics professor living in a dream of upper-middle-class contentment—professionally respected, happily married to another distinguished professor (Alec Baldwin), and on loving terms with her three grown children. Never mind that we get little sense of what Moore’s work entails or that she exhibits little chemistry with her husband, whom she claims to adore. What matters is that her life is more or less perfect—there’s nothing that might distract us from the narrative of her illness—and that the movie will show it crumble from within.

These early scenes had the unfortunate effect of reminding me of such campy Joan Crawford melodramas as Sudden Fear; like that film, Still Alice takes great pains to demonstrate how smart, assured, and glamorous the heroine is. Alice isn’t a movie star, but we’re meant to regard her like one—even her displays of modesty are presented as evidence of humane wisdom. I’m guessing the filmmakers want to show that all sorts of people get Alzheimer’s disease, including brilliant, healthy women in their 50s. But Glatzer and Westmoreland end up suggesting the real tragedy is that anything should ruffle this paragon of modern womanhood.

Still, their narrative provides an antidote to the kinds of stories Susan Sontag tore apart in Illness as Metaphor—stories that imply that terminal illnesses only descend upon the psychologically weak. Alice is far from psychologically weak—grappling with her conditions enables her to demonstrate her psychological strength. For me, this new narrative is basically a variation on the old one, implying that people who resist the progress of their illnesses deserve our admiration while people who simply succumb aren’t worth the same consideration.

By giving Moore the diva treatment, the filmmakers not only advance this worldview—they make the actress seem opportunistic. In a pivotal sequence Alice fails a memory test at the doctor’s office, forgetting details only a few minutes after hearing them. Westmoreland and Glatzer present the scene in an unbroken medium close-up of Moore, so it feels as though we’re watching her mind deteriorate in real time. It also feels as though we’re watching Moore audition for another film, since the scene requires her to do little besides exercise her technical aptitude.