[Screen It]

"STILL ALICE"
(2014) (Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A linguistics professor must contend with being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease and the effects that has on her career, marriage and grown children.
PLOT:
Dr. Alice Howland (JULIANNE MOORE) is a 50-year-old, highly regarded linguistics professor at New York's Columbia University. She's happily married to John (ALEC BALDWIN), and while she wishes her daughter, Lydia (KRISTEN STEWART) would be like her siblings, Tom (HUNTER PARRISH) and Anna (KATE BOSWORTH), and get a "real" job rather than trying to make a go at it in the theater world, she loves all of them equally and has a good life.

But then she starts forgetting certain words, and when she finds herself completely lost while jogging, she's worried enough to see a doctor. It's then that she learns she has early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Even worse, it appears to be genetically passed, something that worries her especially now that Anna and her husband, Charlie (SHANE McRAE), are going to have a baby. As the condition worsens, Alice and her family try to cope with its effects on her and them.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Until someone finds Ponce de Leon's legendary fountain of youth, death is inevitable for everyone. While most of us would like to live a long life and pass away without fuss or muss in our sleep, the reality is that most of will leave this Earth in ways we won't appreciate. Having had loved ones go both quickly and unexpectedly as well as through prolonged illness, I'm still torn about which way is "better," or, better put, the lesser of two deadly evils.

And for those illness that takes months or sometimes years to take their course, I don't know which is worse, one where the body deteriorates but the mind stays pristine (I had a friend pass from ALS), or where the body ages normally but the mind malfunctions and the victim doesn't know who they or anyone around them is anymore (an aunt went that way via Parkinson's).

While so-called disease of the week movies (usually found on TV but sometimes making it to the big screen) cover the gamut of illnesses, the one front and center in "Still Alice" revolves around early onset Alzheimer's Disease.

Starring Julianne Moore as the title character in what's all but a slam dunk Oscar win for the long-acclaimed actress, the film is based on American neuroscientist Lisa Genova's 2007 bestselling novel of the same name. Working from their own screenwriting adaptation of that work, married filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland bring a raw intimacy to the subject, no doubt partially (or greatly) influenced by the fact that Glatzer is currently living with ALS himself.

Their protagonist, ironically enough, is a linguistics professor at New York's Columbia University, and thus words are obviously quite important to her and her work. Thus, when she loses her way during one presentation, she jokes it away by saying she knows she shouldn't have had champagne beforehand. But when that continues, followed by a panic attack of not knowing where she is while jogging in familiar environs, she learns of her diagnosis.

The scary thing for her, her husband (Alec Baldwin), and their three adult kids (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish) not only is that it's developed at a relatively young age (50), but that doing so and arriving in a highly intelligent mind likely means it will progress even faster than usual. And then there's the fact that they discover it's hereditary, meaning that her children and yet-to-be-born grandchildren could similarly suffer the same fate as her.

At this point, you're likely thinking the film could end up in two ways. One would be along the lines of a shamelessly treacly TV melodrama where all the stops are pulled to drain the waterworks of everyone watching, while likely causing excessive eye-rolling from those not susceptible to such ploys. The other is that it would be unbearably upsetting, devastating and ultimately depressing to behold, and in today's world where people usually desire escapism, who needs to witness that?

For yours truly, I found it containing next to none of the former, while treading through the later in such a dignified and thoughtful way that it should emotionally engage you to the fullest extent possible. I rarely cry during movies (unless it's "Field of Dreams" that always gets me at the end), but I balled my eyes out, both during an incredible speech Moore's character delivers in the third act, and then during and after the closing credits.

While the film does include some elements of how the disease affects the related family members (most notably and surprisingly via Kristen Stewart as an initially emotionally and physically distant daughter sometimes at odds with her mother), it's really all about showing the tragedy from the victim's viewpoint. Other performers easily could have gone too far with that sort of material, but Moore hits every note, moment, expression and more with exact precision.

When she records a veiled "how to kill yourself" video for your future, mentally impaired self who she knows will follow her own directions without knowing who she's watching or what the outcome will be, the moment if undeniably powerful. When her later self finds that video and starts to follow those directions, one will likely be on the edge of their seat in trepidation while also possibly simultaneously thinking "good for her" in terms of the character perhaps meeting her own, self-governed, dignified end.

Not easy to sit through (especially when you're of the age where you're starting to fumble for names of both people and things occasionally), but well worth it thanks to the superb work of Moore and just the right touch and nuances by the filmmakers, "Still Alice" gives new meaning to the old message that a mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. The film rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed December 4, 2014 / Posted January 16, 2015


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