Still Alice (2014)
Editor’s Notes: Still Alice is currently out in limited release.
“It’s, like, the worst,” I told a friend after screening Still Alice.
“Yes,” he replied. “And yet it stays with you.”
My response: “That’s because everyone is afraid. Not because the film is remotely graceful.”
The crudest response to Still Alice is to say, “I wish I could forget it existed.” The slightly less crude response is to reiterate what I told my friend earlier, only in more detail. We are all fearful, all aware of our own mortality, all actually quite vulnerable on this rusty coil. And in that vein, the core concept of Still Alice resonates. As a film, however, it is among the most spectacularly disastrous, occasionally laughable, and sometimes downright offensive film experiences of 2014. Such a poignant and sensitive topic, and we get a film that is shot like a Lifetime Movie of the Week and executed on a screenplay level as a ticking time bomb, except when the clock expires, there isn’t explosion, but erasure.
The crudest response to Still Alice is to say, “I wish I could forget it existed.”
Julianne Moore has earned accolade upon accolade for her central performance, and she will win the Oscar in a couple more weeks. Odd, since while Moore’s performance is certainly good (she is incapable of anything less), it’s not so extraordinary that it would refute any of the other performances in the category. As best as I can tell, two other nominees already won their Oscars (Reese Witherspoon and Marion Cotillard), and of the remaining three, Moore is the respected veteran. It will be more a career prize than a resounding approval of this particular work. Such a strategy isn’t anything new for the Academy, though this one seems kind of unique, given the fact that the film is the kind of bad that generates awe. Rather than steer you away, I’m actually inclined to advise that you see it, just so I didn’t have to suffer alone.
Moore plays Alice, a renowned Linguistics professor at Columbia University whose work is her life, and she thrives on it. We are provided precious little information outside of that surface description, however, since the screenplay – by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who also co-directed – is quite intent on jumping right into the tearjerker material. Which is to say, swift diagnosis, proceeded with rapid memory loss and mental collapse, all illustrated in continual episodes of emotional deflation and shield-your-eyes-from-the-screen embarrassment. We aren’t made to identify or empathize with the material, but are instead invited to stand above it, shedding tears.
To be sure, the film is swift and concise – just over 100 minutes of dread and decay with no room for subtextual nuance or thematic complexity – and for that, at least, we can be thankful. But if we are to be subjected to this kind of misery, it should rattle our souls for reasons other than simple fear of mortality. Within the film’s opening three minutes, we meet Alice, then she forgets a word at a seminar, and then she gets lost while jogging across campus. There’s no room to learn about or identify with this character; she simply becomes a conduit for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “Alice” is not actually the main character or even the subject of her own movie – Misery is essentially the star and impending death is the conduit.
… a handful of passages are lifted directly from the text and spoken in full during the film, acting as a substitute for what this screenplay lacks in emotional legitimacy.
“But death is a universal fear,” you might say. “And countless films centered on death and disease have been masterful.” And to that very legitimate argument, I would counter that masterful films about death are masterful because they are about something deeper than death. Philadelphia is about acceptance and equality and shattering a taboo. Amour was about undying love in the face of sometimes inevitable ugliness of aging. Not many films are more pointedly horrific than Wit, but of course that is about never losing one’s grip on oneself even as one is swallowed by disease and prodded by the horrors of bureaucracy. Angels in America is a grandiose celebration of humanity amid chaos. And then there’s Sarah Polley’s truly shattering Away From Her, also centering on the deterioration resulting from Alzheimer’s, but handling it with such graceful humanity that I was in tears for the duration of the film. On the contrary, Still Alice is about nothing other than the march of death – and it’s actually not even about it…it merely observes it in episodic chunks, each scene hurtling forward in time with little context and no narrative clarity, while nonetheless expecting the audience to cry because piano music plays softly on the soundtrack.
The film is based on a novel by Lisa Genova, which I can only hope used the broader space and more detailed nature of literature to craft a fuller, more complex portrait of this truly sad scenario. Glatzer and Westmoreland’s adaptation, however, is a transparent exercise in by-the-numbers tear-jerking so lacking in its own point-of-view that it’s forced to steal from grander works in order to convey a sense of purpose to the audience. The aforementioned Angels in America is the chief victim of Alice’s thievery – a handful of passages are lifted directly from the text and spoken in full during the film, acting as a substitute for what this screenplay lacks in emotional legitimacy.
I could go on to discuss the utter lack of visual storytelling, or how Alice’s family consists entirely of broad caricatures who form an equally caricatured unit of the “New York Academe Family That Sits Together Listening to Jazz”, or how the film disingenuously attempts to score a fraudulent emotional zing even during the end credits…and, well, I guess I just did. These are just additional, continual, incessant examples of how this film seems so focused on the idea of telling a powerful story that it forgets to actually engage with human reality. The specter of death in general and Alzheimer’s in particular are absolutely vital, serious, and important topics for any work of art to explore. There is truly nothing graceful or humane about such a situation. There can, however, be grace and humanity in the portrayal and presentation. Still Alice literally doesn’t have a clue about either.
The specter of death in general and Alzheimer’s in particular are absolutely vital, serious, and important topics for any work of art to explore. There is truly nothing graceful or humane about such a situation. There can, however, be grace and humanity in the portrayal and presentation. Still Alice literally doesn’t have a clue about either.