“Still Alice” and the art of losing

by Andrew Kingsley | 3/8/15 7:30pm

“I’d rather have cancer,” Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) , a Columbia University linguistic professor and mother of three, admits as she slowly succumbs to the ravages of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 50. In “Still Alice” (2014), Howland is robbed of the two vitals that sustain her in life — words and family. Slow, restrained and infinitely sympathetic, the film becomes a nursing home, the audience Howland’s caretakers, as we watch every inch of her decline into helplessness.

Every feminist’s dream, Howland has raised three model children with her beloved husband John (Alec Baldwin) while becoming a preeminent linguist and author of the fictional critically-acclaimed textbook “Neurons to Nouns.” Life is never this good to people. At least, if it were, there wouldn’t be a movie made about it. Chinks in the armor show immediately, as she ironically forgets the word “lexicon” in a presentation she gives on language and gets lost while on a run through Columbia’s main campus.

Denial quickly becomes the family’s weapon to ward off the inevitable tides that will ultimately wipe away the sands of Alice’s memory. Resourceful as any linguist, Alice plays word games with herself, yet we watch as her earlier expertise in Words With Friends — such as playing “HADJ” for 66 points — diminishes to adolescent play — “TONE” for six points. Soon getting dressed, remembering her daughter’s name and even finding the bathroom become out of Alice’s reach.

Yet there are no histrionic displays of anger or existential tears, no destroying her room and shattering lamps. Alice simply recedes, deeper and deeper into her own unconsciousness, lacking the words to hurl at some cruel God who has caused this. At times she embraces the disease, even uses it to leverage her youngest Lydia (Kristen Stewart) to stop her acting career to attend college. But these comic grace notes are drowned out by the silence of an audience watching Alice trying to commit suicide but forgetting how. Moore, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role, becomes a phantom, with eyes looking without seeing, inhabiting rooms while not being there, performing the world’s longest cinematic disappearing act. Like Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne who played Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (2014), Moore’s task is more physical than emotional, forced to play out the full arc of a woman’s deterioration. Although I felt Rosamund Pike’s performance in “Gone Girl” (2014) was more deserving of the award, Moore’s Alice is so human, it feels like the award went to Alice herself out of sympathy for her plight. Since Alzheimer’s is the most expensive condition in the nation, with one in three seniors dying with it, Moore becomes the voice of an ailing nation at a critical time.

At times bordering on banal, the film just watches Alice, examining quiet moments of routine-like trips to Pinkberry to demarcate her deterioration. Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland care too much for Alice to embarrass her at some dinner party. This is a family affair. Her only “exposure” in public comes at an Alzheimer’s Conference, where she gives a harrowing speech, proclaiming, “I am not suffering. I am struggling... It means so much to be talking here, today, like my old ambitious self who was so fascinated by communication.”

Yet the film wouldn’t sell tickets if it just focused on things like Alice forgetting the word “pomegranate” and her Pinkberry order. The film could easily be called “Still Family,” as it pays homage to the thankless heroism of the family turned caretaker. So used to Alice’s five-star spreads at dinner, they must now cook and clean for her. Alice’s daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) gives birth to twins, yet also must adopt her nearly infantile mother.

As the Alzheimer’s consumes Alice, memories of her childhood wisp onto the screen more and more, as her reality dissolves into the past. Bleak, with no sugar coating, the film leaves us with a barely comprehensible Alice, who has become as static as a still life. But she has Lydia by her side, reminding her of love, Alice’s only constant left.

Rating: 8/10“Still Alice” is playing at the Nugget daily at 4:30 and 7 p.m., with additional showings Fridays and Saturdays at 9:15 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1:50 p.m.