Good intentions go a long way in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice. The film will justifiably garner its lead actress Julianne Moore a Best Actress nomination and will likely coast its way to numerous victories throughout its proposed awards run. It is, however, not a particularly passionate work nor is it a very interesting formal exercise. Nothing about the picture’s direction or writing resonate, leaving much of the heavy lifting for its cast and weighty topic.
The film details a linguist’s steady intellectual decline following her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) notices the symptoms - forgetting words, strained cognitive functions, and progressive memory loss - and initially pegs the issue as a brain tumor, a proposed best-case scenario. At 50, her diagnosis is a rarity, moreso for the fact that it’s a familial disease; her children have a fifty-fifty chance of being carriers as well. From here the narrative sees Alice valiantly trying to fend off the inevitable, all as her family watches her gradual decline.
Consider what Robert Altman, a director that Julianne Moore worked with on 1993’s Short Cuts, noted, “films (and filmmakers) are concerned with doing what has already been done better, rather than doing what has may not have been done”. In Still Alice, Glatzer and Westmoreland aim for the former and, if it were not for its lead performer, would’ve failed tremendously. A film like this barrels down in its miserablism that it has all but one place to go. At times, a more fine-tuned dramatist will offer new insights and observations to make for a compelling work. No such insights are made in Still Alice, at least not on any sort visual or thematic level.
But back to Moore. This is the sort of performance that would feature prominently on a sizzle reel. It has the actress at her loudest and most distraught. She peddles the horrors of a disease, and does so convincingly. But she’s a beaten and battered shell that ultimately can’t pander beyond the limitations of her direction and scripting. Some have drawn comparisons to this and Moore’s performance in Todd Haynes’ Safe, though the two are on opposite sides of the spectrum. In Haynes’ film, Moore conveys an astute hyper-awareness of the mundane, embracing a drastic change to her dull life as a suburban housewife, only to find herself in a new complacent routine. In Still Alice, she’s stripped of that awareness by a tangible disease. She embraces complacency, if only to insure a measure of structure in a life. But none of this is really touched upon, with Glatzer and Westmoreland favoring histrionics to emotional understatement.
Bringing up comparisons to Altman and Haynes is sure to make any director look small in comparison, but it’s not as if the Still Alice’s duo really holds their own. This is material presented in the simplest way possible, making even the most genuine efforts come across as grossly manipulative. It’s an egregious error that’s just too calculated, lacking spontaneity, and ultimately forgettable. Saying “Moore was excellent” is usually the case for many of the films she’s in; the films we bother to remember are the ones where she’s not the only good thing about it.