Let’s get this out of the way first: If Julianne Moore had phoned in her performance in Still Alice, or if someone with far less talent had taken the role, the movie would be seen as laughable, boring, and disrespectful to anyone afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. Yes, the movie is a bit light outside of how it portrays a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, its focus is so narrow that this is about all that it has going on. And yet, it is gripping and emotionally powerful simply because of how good Moore is in the role.
Starting at the beginning, the film follows a well-renowned linguistics professor, Dr. Alice Howland (Moore). She’s someone who values her intellect, and her ability to communicate proficiently with others on a high level. So, when she starts becoming forgetful, she knows something isn’t right. A neurologist tells her, after some testing, that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It progresses faster in individuals with a high education. Oh, and it’s familial. Alice and her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), have three children. There’s a 50/50 chance of passing this along.
The rest of Still Alice follows our protagonist, her husband, and their children as the disease begins to progress. At first, it’s just minor things, but by the time the film concludes, you get to see just how awful Alzheimer’s disease is, assuming you didn’t know going in. And even if you did, the film is a reminder of what it can do to someone — especially someone as well-educated and well-spoken as Alice was. It completely robs her of who she was.
Still Alice is heartbreaking. It’s hard to remain stone-faced while watching it, and that’s coming from someone who hasn’t seen any immediate family members deal with the disease. I can only imagine how those who have dealt with it will feel while watching this movie. Make sure you stock up on tissues beforehand. It really is devastating, in large part because of the person targeted by the disease. The decline in mental function is just so startling.
And it’s not just that we get to see how it impacts Alice. Her family is also shown having to deal with how Alice changes. Having a family member get sick is always hard on those around them, too. John is the main one who has to deal with it, although the children — played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart — come and go and we see how it affects them, too. At least one of them, statistically, it also going to have to deal with this at some point in their life, too.
That last point gets about one scene of focus. The effect on the family isn’t the focal point of Still Alice, either. We get to see it as a peripheral, but the focus is on Alice. Perhaps a greater balance could have been reached in order to give the film more depth. The success or failure of the picture winds up coming down squarely on Julianne Moore’s shoulders. That’s something you can do when you’ve hired someone like Moore, because the film works simply because she’s great, but spreading the load would create a better film overall.
Julianne Moore is fantastic. She turns in one of her best performances in a career chock-full of them, and she deserves every accolade she will garner. Alec Baldwin is up to the task of keeping up with her, although he’s obviously given a less important, less showy role. The younger actors all bring little quirks to their characters and work well alongside Moore and Baldwin.
The success of Still Alice comes directly from Julianne Moore. The film would not be a success if she did not deliver a standout performance. We would be criticizing the film’s lack of depth or purpose beyond portraying a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. It would be seen as laughable, simplistic, and probably offensive if Moore was not believable in the role. Luckily, the gamble paid off, and Still Alice winds up being an emotionally compelling and heartbreaking movie. All of the actors are good, but it comes down to whether or not Julianne Moore is terrific. She is, and the movie hits hard as a result.