One of our most resourceful actresses, Julianne Moore pushes toward sincerity even in films that sell us lies. She’s pliable when the work that contains her is unnecessarily stiff, ambiguous when a part would appear to insist on transparency. As Dr. Alice Howard, a cognitive psychologist who succumbs quickly to early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore has her fine moments in Still Alice. In an early scene from the film, Alice delivers a lecture in which Moore’s canny accentuation of the word “babble” speaks to the character’s at once personal and intellectual connection to language. One imagines Alice having scripted this text while recalling both the birth of her three grown children and pondering the mythic implications of the dispersion of nations at the Tower of Babel. And this one moment comes full circle in a later scene when her eldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), allows her husband to hand Alice their newborn baby, whom Alice regards lovingly and quizzically, almost as if she were recalling a familiar taste, a fond memory, or learning to speak for the first time.
Those are rare grace notes in a film that works against its actors’ searching evocation of their characters’ interiors. Moore has always thrived playing individualist square pegs struggling to squeeze into the round hole of constrictive societies. Here, though, Still Alice is itself the round hole, and one often senses Moore’s toil to flit across her countenance the history of a woman that the film, based on Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel, is uninterested in etching. It does, though, dubiously present Alice’s descent into dementia as a snowball of stakes-raising dramatic tension. The film understands a neuroscientist being afflicted with Alzheimer’s as irony and irony only, before then cheaply milking Alice’s dementia for will-she-or-won’t-she suspense. In one scene, she drops her notes during a speech she’s delivering at a convention, and you can cut the tension in the room—and, by extension, the theater—as to whether she’ll regroup. Earlier, she records a video for her too-far-gone future self that’s meant to guide her toward suicide, and how that thread crudely resolves itself is the stuff of bad television.
Still Alice largely fails to substantiate Alice’s own admission that “I’ve always been defined by my intellect,” namely how that intellectualism informs her self-determination: not just her decision to want to kill herself, but the manner by which she goes about keeping her mind agile with a series of memory tests. Just as the film accepts her intelligence and resourcefulness as givens, it doesn’t offer a concrete sense of how her and her fellow neurologist husband’s (Alec Baldwin) parenting skills contributed to their children having such cartoonishly opposed personalities. In an early scene where Alice speaks with her doctor (Stephen Kunken), the camera lingers on Moore’s face in a manner that’s likely meant to evoke Bergman’s framing of his many muses, maybe even Sarah Polley’s close-ups of Julie Christie in Away from Her, but in the controlled frenzy with which Alice answers the doctor’s questions, there’s no sense of how her bafflement is colored by her experience as a wife, mother, and intellectual. Good as she often is here, Moore doesn’t convey Alice’s sense of her idealized self.
That’s mostly the fault of a film that’s beholden to subtext-evading exposition and whose bathetic home-movie flashbacks of Alice frolicking on a beach with her long-deceased mother and sister speak less to her relationship with her family than to a superficial notion of life and memory drifting away from her. Worse is the sense of chronology that never artfully aligns with the deterioration of Alice’s mind; in one scene, her condition is cloyingly literalized by having her family, presently discussing her future, appear out of focus in the background as she sits on a couch. And as if to compensate for images that often linger on characters at the most inexpressive of angles, no moment in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film seems to pass by without being shellacked by Ilan Eshkeri’s intrusively maudlin score.
Still Alice, though, does thrive in its depiction of Alice’s dynamic with her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart). An actress trying to eke out a living and future in Los Angeles, she interacts with her mother, either in person or via computer, with a tenderness and animosity of expression that speaks to the ups and downs of most mother-daughter relationships, as well to ones that have been rocked by disease and where surrender can feel like an act of mercy. Both Moore and Stewart make poignant their characters’ displays of emotional outreach and defensive withdrawal throughout scenes where it’s never quite certain if Alice’s mind has blanked once again, and as such deteriorated a little more and beyond repair, or if she’s using her disease as a means of forcing a sense of connection between herself and her daughter. This is the kind of artful consideration of familial friction acerbated by disease, and vice versa, that nearly saves Still Alice from the banality of its Lifetime-movie execution.