Still Alice Dir. Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2014]

Styles: drama
Others: Away From Her, Poetry, pretty soon your parents

Still Alice is about a simple problem: a woman, a professor of Linguistics at Columbia University, a mother, a wife — Alice is diagnosed at 50 with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The movie itself is a series of incidents relating to that; in the first scene, Alice forgets a word, then, in the next, she loses herself in the lecture she’s giving. She gets lost while running by her home, forgets words, and then loses bigger things: the names of her children, where the bathroom in her vacation home is, and, ultimately, her identity.

It plays itself off as simple; it doesn’t have a lot to say about itself, nor is it very self-aware. The drama deepens, for a moment, when her neurologist realizes that her Alzheimer’s, rare as it already is, is a rarer strand, still: it is familial, passed down to her children, who have a 50% chance of having the gene for it. But that addition does little for anything, doesn’t take up much thought or drama; it fills up and is enveloped, folded into, everything else, into the very simple premise that you’re presented with in the beginning.

Julianne Moore plays the lead extraordinarily. In the opening scene, the family is out to some fancy dinner, and she plays full Alice, nearly 100%, who she truly is, or was, and she is celebrating her birthday and someone gives her a sweater, and it is clearly not what she wanted, and the person says, “Oh, you can exchange it,” and she replies, without a beat, “Oh, I love it, I would never,” and so on. She has her perma-smile and her eloquence and everything about the person she decided to be — she would never just end up this way — intact. And she takes off pieces from there, one small block at a time, inching toward oblivion slowly, but in chunks. By the end, her vacant stare stretches for miles in any direction; she mutters words with the inability of the disabled, the crutched.

But as far as holes go, Still Alice remains quite shallow, only toeing its waters and just watching the ripples, not so much making them, being purposeful. It ends without true conclusion, at an arbitrary stopping point. We have known, since frame one, since before frame one, that Alice was doomed; such a conclusion is foregone. So what then? What does it mean, to end absolutely, of course, in smoldering rubble? “I wish I had cancer,” Alice says at one point. “At least then people wear pink ribbons for you, and they go on long walks.” We’re all dying of something, or losing everything somehow, some more rapidly or more unexpectedly than others. We don’t all get books or movies or walks in our honor or for our cause’s benefit. Alice just wants attention, and I guess she’s got it, here, but so what? I’m going to die, too, and maybe of this, or that, or cancer, or I won’t wear my seatbelt later today and get hit by a drunk driver, and, well, there are enough PSAs about that, I suppose.

There’s no point in talking about something without saying anything. In a lecture — one that she of course gets lost in, forgets her way — Alice says something about, the more we know about this the less we seem to be studying, and soon we’ll know everything about nothing. Still Alice feels a lot like that. It goes on at some length to talk about Alzheimer’s, and about how lives burn into ash, and eventually you can’t tell they were there at all. We lose what’s most important to us, what gives everything meaning: our memories. We all do. Alice just lost them earlier than she expected. But what’s frustrating is that, at the end of it, I know just a little bit more, and because of that, it makes me feel like I’ve learned about nothing at all.

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