Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Recent Watches: Still Alice (2014)

What does one make of the Oscar movie with a single nomination? “Still Alice” garnered only a single nomination, for Julianne Moore in Best Actress, but still has a great chance of winning. When this happens, what does that mean? Was a small scale drama like this forced out of the big categories by movies with wider scopes? Despite featuring plenty of big name actors, “Still Alice” is still somehow an independent movie, another reason it maybe didn’t catch more nods. There’s two more possibilities: The Academy Awards are meaningless and reflect on a movie’s quality in no meaningful way. Or the nominated performance was the only good thing about an otherwise mediocre movie. “Still Alice” is not otherwise mediocre yet I walked away from the film uncertain of how to feel.

Alice is a successful college professor. She has a loving husband, three adult children, with her first grandchild on the way. The family makes enough money that they can afford a scenic vacation home on the coast. The biggest drama in Alice’s life is that her youngest daughter is pursuing an acting career instead of college. However, not long after her fiftieth birthday, her memory begins to slip. She forgets little things, wanders off topic during conversations, and gets lost while running on campus one day. After seeing a neurologist, she is diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s. Over the next few months, her condition degrades rapidly, forever changing Alice’s life and challenging her family.

Most stories about Alzheimer’s disease occur when the sufferer is elderly. “Still Alice” emphasizes the awfulness of the condition by having a woman in her prime, with everything to loose, become afflicted with the disease. The film is relatively subtle about it, at first. While out at dinner with her kids, she changes topics suddenly. She introduces herself to someone two times in a day. Sometimes, she repeats herself. She looses track of plans, forgetting an important dinner. The most severe moment is when she gets lost while going for a run. As the grandson of a woman who has slowly been loosing her memories to Alzheimer’s for the last decade, I can attest to all these things being accurate. However, “Still Alice” condenses its story far too much. Within the span of months, Alice is reduced to a sputtering invalid, urinating in her pants and unable to form complete sentences. This may be true to life in some cases but I can’t help but think the film takes it too far, coming off as contrived.

Earning many accolades, and likely to go home with an Oscar Sunday night, is Julianne Moore. At the beginning, Moore’s natural, still glowing beauty is stressed. As if to say, even the most glamorous person can be suddenly struck down by unexpected illness. Moore never entirely lets go of that glamor. Her performance is powerful, such as when she delivers a speech about her memory lose to a room full of experts. (That will surely be her Oscar clip this weekend.) She has a casualness to many of her lines that seem natural. Yet her acting is measured and calculated too. Alice’s condition is never treated in a raw, unpolished way. When she wets herself, the sequence is cut dramatically, for full effect. When letting her husband dress herself, or struggling to remember her old job, Moore plays it too measured, too controlled. The only time the film comes close to acknowledging the struggles of the condition in a honest manner is when Alice awakes in the middle of the night, unable to find her cell phone, freaking out about it. It’s a rough, unrefined moment and one the film needed more of. Moore is totally committed to the material. She’s at her best when not playing up Alice’s condition, such as a romantic romp on the bed with her husband. It’s the script that falters.

This is a petty detail but it bothered me. “Still Alice’s ” supporting cast is packed full of recognizable faces. No shit, you’ll say, it’s a movie. Of course there are name actors in it. Yet the presence of Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, and Kristen Stewert is distracting. Baldwin is fine, playing down his usual abrasiveness. Neither of the daughters are very likable. Bosworth is too tightly wound and over-dramatic. Stewert comes off as overly petulant, a bit like a spoiled brat. Her typically vacant expression and comical overbite doesn’t help that image any. The direction is serviceable but mostly forgettable, save one clever moment that cuts between pills and Fruity Pebbles. The musical score is in tune with the film, ramping up the drama and confusion when necessary. I’m not a fan of the cover of “If I Had a Boat” that plays over the credits, preferring the original that makes an earlier appearance.

A key moment in “Still Alice” comes not long after her diagnosis. She records a file on her laptop, giving detailed instructions for her suicide, for the time when she forgets everything. Expectantly, she forgets this too. After stumbling upon the video, Alice obediently follows her own instruction, oblivious to what she is doing. Yet because he memory is non-existent, she replays the video over and over again, so she doesn’t miss any details. Watching this, I found myself thinking: Are my heartstrings being plucked? Is this too maudlin? Insincere? Is the movie trying to hard, wringing too much emotion out of what should be a powerful, honest moment? Much of “Still Alice” has this same problem. The movie feels overproduced when it should feel painful.

“Still Alice” is a decent effort but ends up feeling a lot like Oscar bait. Moore’s performance is good but the film treats its subject matter with kid’s gloves. Compare the film to “Amour.” I didn’t much like that movie either but at least it never backed away from what was happening. It didn’t glamorize or smooth over the nasty details, in favor of manufactured drama. There’s a middle ground between the clinical coldness of that film and the overdone drama of this one. That movie, if it exists, probably wouldn’t win any Oscars. [6/10]

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