'Still Alice' Is A Triumph For Julianne Moore, But The Rest Of Film Is Thin

Jan 16, 2015
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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The Oscar buzz was strong for Julianne Moore at the world premiere of "Still Alice" at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, and she's still the favorite, after a recent Golden Globes win and an Academy Awards nomination. Moore plays a professor who finds out after a series of memory lapses that she has Alzheimer's. The film also stars Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "Still Alice," Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50-year-old Columbia University linguistics professor with early onset Alzheimer's disease. And Moore can make the mere act of thinking seem like a momentous test of her character's identity. She makes you ponder the rightness of Descartes's declaration, I think, therefore I am.

In Alice's first visit to a neurologist after a series of memory lapses, the co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland keep the camera on Moore's face for a couple of minutes, no cutaways, as Alice recounts her symptoms and answers questions to test her recall. Alice is immensely satisfied by getting things exactly right. Her smarts and self-reliance are a point of pride. They're how she coped after her alcoholic father killed her mother and sister in a car accident. So when her hyperlucidity goes, when the distance begins to lengthen between what she thinks and the words to express it, the question hangs - will Alice, at the end of this degeneration, still exist? "Still Alice" is a triumph for more, but the rest is a little thin. It's based on Harvard-trained neuroscientist Lisa Genova's novel, which reads like an ultra-empathetic clinician's report. Told from Alice's point of view, the book charts her day by day decline, each chapter bringing a fresh assault on her autonomy and dignity. But Genova doesn't have the poetic gifts to evoke the fragmentation of Alice's psyche. And the people around her - among them, her husband, a cancer researcher - are half-formed. Glatzer and Westmoreland haven't done much to flesh those other characters out, which hurts Alec Baldwin, as Alice's husband, the most. He's playing a dull guy, loving and supportive at first, then more concerned with his own career as his wife's symptoms worsen, and he doesn't seem fully present. Most of the other characters are written perfunctorily, though Kristen Stewart comes through vividly as Alice's daughter Lydia, who breaks from family tradition by skipping college to try to become an actress. Lydia's thinking like an actress, as well as a daughter, when she presses her mother for a view of Alzheimer's from the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STILL ALICE")

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Lydia Howland) What's it like? Like, what does it actually feel like?

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Alice Howland) Well, it's not always the same. I have good days and bad days, and on my good days I can, you know, almost pass for a normal person. But on my bad days I feel like I can't find myself. I've always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation and now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can't reach them and I don't know who I am. And I don't know what I'm going to lose next.

STEWART: (As Lydia Howland) Sounds horrible.

MOORE: (As Alice Howland) Thanks for asking.

EDELSTEIN: Like much of "Still Alice," that scene is too on the nose. But Julianne Moore is always fascinating. At this stage in her disease, Alice is weighing every word. Her voice goes slightly dead as she tries to say what's happening, like a clinician studying herself. Alice has a lot of home movie-ish memories of playing on the beach with her late mother and sister that could've been banal, but Moore keeps her face still, mouth slightly open, eyes on something we can't see and makes you feel her sense of loss. The yearning chamber music by Ilan Eshkeri seems to emanate from her.

After "Still Alice" was completed, co-director Glatzer revealed he'd been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease ALS. He and Westmoreland deliver a final scene that widens the movie's focus beyond Alzheimer's. Lydia rehearses a monologue from "Angels In America" and reads aloud to her mother. It's a speech in which Tony Kushner, writing at the peak of a violent, hopeless AIDS epidemic, finds words to convey what remains when our earthly bodies seem lost. The scene takes you somewhere a neuroscientist can't - to the soul.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.