Persistence of memory

"What's that word for when you can't remember a word?"

"What's that word for when you can't remember a word?"

Rated 4.0

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease steals the mind of a very smart woman in Still Alice, a movie that is sure to garner Julianne Moore her first Academy Award. She plays Alice, a professor at Columbia University who leads a very organized and regimented life of lectures, dinner parties and runs in the park. Alice starts forgetting words here and there, and then proceeds to lose her place in lectures. When she loses her way during a routine jog and can’t find her way home, she begins to realize that these aren’t normal memory loss problems for a 50-year-old woman.

At first, Alice thinks she has a brain tumor. But some memory tests suggest to her neurologist (Stephen Kunken) that something else could be causing her difficulties. After a series of brain scans, the conclusion is made: Alice has Alzheimer’s.

Alice, her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and her children are horrified to discover their matriarch, a brilliant woman, will rapidly lose her memory, her sense of self, and her ability to recognize her own children. She actually has a rare strain of Alzheimer’s that’s familial, meaning that there’s a good chance she has passed the possibility of the disease onto her three children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

As you have perhaps guessed, this is not a fun movie to watch, but it is a remarkable one in that Moore and the entire cast take this one way above the level of your average disease-of-the-week movie. Moore is one of the world’s very best actresses, and she makes Alice a palpable representation of this horrible disease.

The script, based on a novel by Lisa Genova and written by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, avoids most of the melodrama that tends to mar films about illnesses. They present a very real family going through total devastation, but handling the process with dignity, class and love for Alice. It’s all very moving.

The much maligned and highly underrated Kristen Stewart is perhaps the supporting cast standout as the young daughter trying to make it as an actress. Alice beckons her to attend college, but Lydia steadfastly refuses, an argument that becomes very awkward when Alice becomes ill. Stewart is spot-on in her portrayal of a young woman determined to follow her dreams, but also driven by the need to help her mother.

Baldwin takes a very quiet approach to the husband, a subtle performance that reminds us that he’s a great dramatic actor. John still feels the need to protect and provide for his family, even if that takes him away from Alice for a new opportunity. It creates one of the film’s central conflicts, and John’s decisions will be a subject for debate for those who see the movie.

Moore and Baldwin have great scenes together, especially when Alice reveals her illness to her children. Baldwin’s reactions to his wife’s progressive memory loss, a mixture of sadness and shock, are painful to watch. Moore and Baldwin make the image of two people in love sitting in a yogurt shop totally devastating.

Moore gives us a deep, fully realized, multi-dimensional performance that never overdoes the sentiment or feels trite. Alice is a woman who prides herself on her encyclopedic knowledge for teaching, and exhibits nothing but grace as that knowledge is rapidly stripped away. Credit Moore for making every step of Alice’s tribulations seem honest and credible.

So, yes, Moore will get her first Oscar with her fifth nomination, and she very much deserves it. There were some great nominated performances this year—especially Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Reese Witherspoon for Wild—but Moore outshines the class. It’s Golden Boy time for Moore.