Julianne Moore walked away with the Golden Globe for best actress in a drama — beating out the likes of Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything and Reese Witherspoon in Wild — for a film that has received far less exposure than those of her awards-ready counterparts.
She’s likely to do it again on Oscar night, and, if she does, there shouldn’t be too many complaints, even from her opponents. In Still Alice, about a woman tumbling deeper into the fog of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore is at the top of her game.
She plays Alice Howland, a successful linguistics professor at Columbia University who also just happens to have a picture-perfect family, including an ambitious medical doctor for a husband (Alec Baldwin) and three adult children at various life stages.
Tom (Hunter Parrish) is a med student, following in Dad’s footsteps. Anna (Kate Bosworth) is a married lawyer who’s trying to start a family of her own. Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is in Los Angeles struggling to be an actress.
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But there’s a shadow on Alice’s horizon, one more serious than the usual angst that comes when celebrating the significant birthday — her 50th — that opens the film. She is starting to forget little things and lose her facility with words. That’s a tragedy for anyone, but especially for someone whose very identity is inextricably tied to language and memory.
As Alice falls deeper down the rabbit hole, she gradually loses contact with her friends, family and, finally, herself.
Such a journey could have made for a mawkish movie experience. Instead, as directed and written by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (based on a novel by Lisa Genova), Still Alice is mostly subtle and heartbreaking. Even Baldwin reins in his more over-the-top tendencies.
The filmmakers, who are life as well as business partners, have said in interviews that they gleaned a very personal insight into dealing with a life-changing, debilitating illness after Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.
Yet as strong as the duo’s script and direction are, it’s Moore who really brings the film, and the reality it represents, home. It’s in her expression when the doctor gives his diagnosis and pessimistic prognosis. It’s in the way she looks at her family, knowing there will come a time when she won’t recognize them.
Ultimately, it’s in her strength as she decides to deal with her cruel fate in her own way.
Still Alice doesn’t deal as well with how the disease affects those around Alice. According to the film, early onset Alzheimer’s often has a genetic component, so Alice’s decline could be her children’s future. Yet with the exception of Lydia, for whom the disease brings her closer to her mother, the members of the family are not fully fleshed out.
This makes it all the more important that the character of Alice anchor the film in an engrossing reality. Moore is that anchor, making sure this cinematic ship doesn’t sink under the weight of what could have been a heavy-handed sob story.
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens Feb. 13 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571
Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin
Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic material, brief strong language including a sexual reference)
Running time: 101 min.