Friday, January 16, 2015

"Still Alice"

 4 / 5 

In the end, we will all lose everything.  It is one of the great puzzles of life, and I would do this ultimate mystery a disservice by trying to quote philosophers I have barely read.  But philosophers only expand on what we all know inside ourselves: Life is temporary and will fade away to nothing.

For Alice Howland, this most meaningful and meaningless of all truths takes on a different dimension, and the short arc of the remainder of her days are he subject of Still Alice, a remarkably focused and vivid movie that follows a successful, well-regarded university professor from the time she learns she has early onset Alzheimer's disease to a point that may not be the end of Alice but is at least disturbingly close to it.

To explain Still Alice as "the movie in which Julianne Moore plays a woman with Alzheimer's disease" does this beautiful, elegiac film a huge disservice.  Yes, it is about a woman diagnosed with a terrible disease, but it is more passionately about a woman who refuses to go gently into that good night.  She does not follow poet Dylan Thomas' instructions to rage against it, but she does resist.

Alice is a college linguistics professor who is only too aware of the way the brain learns and processes language, how it decodes sounds and visual cues into meaning, and how communication -- with or without words -- is the only common language that human beings have.  In the world in which Alice has spent her professional career, every object, ever word, ever choice is ascribed with meaning.  Eliminate those meanings, and a cup is a cup that has no value other than being a cup.  It is not the cup out of which you drank a sip of coffee on your way to get married.  The notebook is not the notebook you were writing in the night you got tragic news.  They are cups and notebooks, and that is all.  The meaning comes from our interpretation of them.

Slowly at first, and then with vicious force, Alice's world loses its meaning.  Stairs are stairs, not the steps she and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) trotted up and down every day for decades.  A woman who waits for Alice backstage after a show is just a nice-looking young woman, she is not Alice's daughter -- at least not anymore, not for Alice.

Though no one is exactly adept at it, we all have more practice dealing with more socially acceptable forms of slow death: As Alice says to  John at a particularly aware moment, "I wish I had cancer, I do.  Then I wouldn't have this embarrassment."  How do you explain the captivating, intelligent 50-year-old woman who can't remember the name for a duck, who doesn't realize you met her just moments ago?

"I am not suffering," a defiant Alice proclaims in a deeply moving speech she gives to Alzheimer's patients and family members. "I am struggling ... struggling to be connected with who I once was."

Isn't that, in a sense, what we all do?

The beauty of Still Alice is that even within a specific story about a specific woman's struggle, writer-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, adapting a novel by Lisa Genova, find a way to relate Alice's rare condition to everyone: Our constant struggle is to reconcile who we were and what we did with who we are.  We live our lives in emotional retrograde; the now makes sense only because there was a then.

In her quiet, tremulous performance, Moore brings this essential impossibility of Alzheimer's disease into stark, painful contrast.  She is losing herself.  Despite the film's title, she is not "still Alice," she is someone else, someone no one -- including herself -- recognizes.  But she is still there.  And as long as she is, her condition must be managed.

Still Alice is not a hopeful film -- there is no miracle cure waiting with her name written on the vial.  The only way out is through.  In time, we learn the toll this realization takes on the rest of her family, including her romantically optimistic actress daughter (Kristen Stewart), her less adjusted daughter (Kate Bosworth) and her stalwart son (Hunter Parrish).  Each, along with their father, responds in a classically Marxist way: Each according to his abilities.  Their family will be destroyed soon, by a woman who wants her family to remain unharmed.

No, Still Alice offers little hope, but it does provide a glimmer of acceptance, of peaceful understanding.  Through the generous, never histrionic, performance of Moore, who is in almost every shot of the film, there is a determined, beautiful soul at its core -- a soul ravaged by misfortune, but that seeks to rise nonetheless.

While many may feel Still Alice is a little too cold, a little too distanced to be truly effective, I found it a wondrous movie.  It remains grounded in the realities of day-to-day life, the realities that will go on even when Alice does not remember what they are -- and even when she has ceased to go on herself.

It's a quiet, thoughtful movie, letting its actors act in plentiful master shots that linger and allow them to convey their characters without the incessant cutting that plagues so many films and builds an unintentional wall between the actors and the story.  Still Alice presents its story plainly, so plainly it is easy to see that it could be any story, because such a tragedy could befall any of us.  It does not try to be graceful, though it contains moments of real grace; it does not try to be tender, though it contains scenes of great tenderness and compassion.

Hampered a bit by the miscasting of Alec Baldwin as Alice's husband -- they never seem to have real chemistry -- Still Alice's minor weaknesses are offset by an unexpectedly strong performance by Kristen Stewart as Alice's ne'er-do-well actress daughter.  But in Julianne Moore, the film finds a fearless, hypnotic actor who creates a well-realized character, one we are just beginning to warm up to despite her inherent coldness, and allows her to slide down a steep and treacherous path that has only one possible outcome.  As we watch her struggle, the effect on the audience is not embarrassment or discomfort -- it is admiration, appreciation and deep empathy.

Alice will live as long as she can.  She will hang on to as much as she can until the end.  She is not ready to go, especially not this way.  She wants to remember everything, but can't.

In that, Alice is not all too different from any of us.

Viewed Jan. 16, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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