Julianne Moore has long been one of the most fearless actresses around, willing to play everything from a porn actress (“Boogie Nights”) to a monstrously narcissistic and neglectful mother (“What Maisie Knew”). So it’s no surprise that she chose to immerse herself in the role of a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s, and gives a thoroughly lived-in performance that seems a lock to win the Best Actress Oscar.
But the film itself, which is based on a novel by Lisa Genova, is something of a cheat. Only about 5 percent of all Alzheimer’s sufferers have early onset (affecting people under 65). And the character Moore plays is a linguistics professor at Columbia University with three supportive children and a medical researcher husband (Alec Baldwin), who lives in a multi-million dollar New York brownstone. In other words, this woman, and this family, have intellectual, psychological and monetary resources that the vast majority of Americans can only dream about.
Which makes “Still Alice” affecting – thanks mainly to Moore’s performance – but about as atypical as you can possibly imagine. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking about the 1974 John Cassevetes classic “A Woman Under the Influence,” in which Peter Falk plays a construction worker unable to deal with wife Gena Rowland’s descent into mental illness. What if “Still Alice” were about a more typical family unit, one which didn’t have access to top-notch doctors, paid caregivers and the intellectual wherewithal to research and deal with the illness? A more average family might have made for a more universal experience – and a better film.
Not that “Still Alice” isn’t unsettling. From the moment when Moore’s character first starts to have memory lapses – she loses her train of thought at a lecture, then gets lost during a campus run – the film is a meticulous look at mental deterioration. There is the disbelief when Moore hears from her neurologist that she has Alzheimer’s – she’s only 50 – and the horror when she learns it’s genetic, and might have passed it on to her children. There are little tests to jog her memory about simple things like the month she was born; anger at what’s happening (at one point, Moore’s character says she’d rather have cancer); despair; and the ultimate indignity – getting lost on the way to her own bathroom, and urinating on herself.
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Through all this, Moore’s transformation is heartbreaking. First seen as a vibrant woman at her 50th birthday party, at the end of the film she is nearly catatonic, with a hangdog affect and slurred speech. It’s tough to even look at her, a testament to Moore’s unsettling and all too realistic performance.
“Still Alice” benefits from solid acting down the line – Kristen Stewart is especially fine as Moore’s struggling actress daughter – but it exists in a rarefied world of privilege unknown to most Alzheimer’s patients. Because of this aura of entitlement, I’m going to split my rating. Julianne Moore: A. The film: C+.