To put it simply, Julianne Moore can do no wrong. She’s good in everything; from her exquisitely mundane awards-pulling performances in Far from Heaven and The Hours to her paycheck parties like Evolution or the Carrie remake. You feel like Moore gives the same amount of substantial effort to everything. She’s a wonderful actress, one of the finest and most understated actresses of modern cinema, and she puts in standard, appreciable work on Still Alice. Not to sound like a prognosticator, but someday she’ll get an Oscar, and she’ll deserve it.
But Still Alice isn’t quite that day.
It’s not that her performance isn’t good enough; it’s that her performance does all the heavy lifting in what otherwise feels like a TV movie. It’s a common kind of performance, one that begs for Oscars: physical and mental ailments and overcoming struggle. This isn’t meant to sound rude or condescending or cynical, but there’s a long and predictable history of high-concept films in this arena. From the powerful Philadelphia or the screwball Silver Linings Playbook to the debatable King’s Speech and even the incredibly insensitive and manipulative I Am Sam: it’s an oddly specific and sometime dubious genre. Still Alice is on the lower end of this sort of film.
Moore is Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. Get ready for cruel irony: Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. To witness this woman, a talented linguist and college professor, lose her gifts with next to zero control over what’s happening to her … well, it’s upsetting to say the least. When Alice admits to her husband John (Alec Baldwin) that she’s seeing a doctor and is scared of what will happen next, she breaks down, and the film feels like a perfectly stripped and intimate indie. There are handfuls of moments like that in Still Alice. However, for every two straightforward scenes, there’s an overdone scene that’s too familiar. At one point, Alice is making a big speech about her struggles, with supportive shots of friends and family inserted and delivered in the fashion of a sports movie. It’s not delicate, and it’s not deep, that’s for certain.
Moore, ever the consummate artist, makes good on a demanding role, showing her Alice as a woman taken out of commission in her prime. Again, Moore is the key talent in a clichéd movie. Rich Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (of this year’s theatrically released Lifetime movie The Last of Robin Hood) present the material in two modes: dry and soapy drama. The former wins out for the most part. Ultimately, each scene feels like another small step in Alice’s regression.
Who here has seen David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s cult classic Mr. Show? One of the recurring themes on that show was the insidious nature of awards, characterized by movies with a repetitive and accessible concept. There’s usually the word “struggle” in the byline, and the film is nothing more than a cloy at grabbing awards. Most venomously, there was the “Dewey Cyrus Awards,” a skit that came to mind while watching Still Alice. The focus is mean – awards for performances specifically based on being handicapped – but it spoke to a noticeable trend.
There’s a constant stream of star performances every autumn that get little money or attention from audiences, but suck up nominations because they feature harrowing roles. Thus, the designation of awards bait. Some are better than others, and while Julianne Moore’s depiction of Alzheimer’s is brave, compelling stuff, there’s still the gnawing sense that Still Alice’s purpose is to generate buzz, as opposed to tell a terrific or insightful or heartfelt story.