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‘Still Alice’: Alzheimer’s without sentimentality

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media

When someone mentions Alzheimer’s disease, it evokes the image of someone over the age of 65. However, approximately 10 percent of those diagnosed with the syndrome have an earlier onset. “Still Alice” is a stirring depiction of one such person.

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is an esteemed professor of linguistics at Columbia University. She and her medical researcher husband, John (Alec Baldwin), live in a fashionable, oak wainscoted Manhattan townhouse.  The two academics enjoy a mutually supportive, intellectually stimulating relationship.

At a dinner for Alice’s 50th birthday, the film fleshes out the family parameters. Alice’s older daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), is an attorney, who is trying to have a baby with her husband, Charlie (Shane McRae). Her son, Tom (Hunter Parrish), is a medical resident, who has recently broken up with his girlfriend. Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is the baby of the family. Much to Alice’s chagrin, she has eschewed college to pursue her muse as a struggling actress in sunny California.

A symposium, held in Los Angeles, establishes Alice’s academic credentials. She is introduced with glowing praise, which specifically cites her authorship of the seminal work, “From Neurons to Nouns.” She launches into a lecture about an abstruse topic, past tense irregular verb form. Early in her presentation, Alice stumbles verbally, but laughs it off. She jokes that she shouldn’t have had that glass of champagne on the previous evening. Alice recovers nimbly and proceeds with her discourse.

Originally, Alice assumed that the cognitive lapse during her lecture was a one-off aberration. However, back in New York, she experiences an acute sense of spatial disorientation while jogging. This portends a series of troubling incidents, in which Alice’s faculties seem to be intermittently compromised.

Alarmed by the fear that she has developed a brain tumor, Alice consults a neurologist, Dr. Benjamin (Stephen Kunken). At the session, Alice offers flashes of her formidable intellect. However, she also manifests clinical evidence of some mental deterioration.

Following some medical tests, Alice’s neurologist delivers a devastating diagnosis. She has early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice has always been self-defined by her conspicuous intellect and verbal dexterity. How ironic is it that she is now cognitively challenged and groping for words? Stripped of her cerebrotonic proclivities, just who is she? The protagonist struggles with this identity crisis.

Alice anticipates that further intellectual impairment will continue in an inevitable and inexorable pattern. A particularly moving vignette shows Alice recording a message to her future self. In it, Alice counsels her projected analogue on how to cope with the diminution of her mental capacities. Imagine that science fiction time travel trope in which two permutations of the same character from two different temporal settings confront one another. Only in this instance, the notion is tethered to reality.

The novel by Lisa Genova has been effectively translated by the film’s co-screenwriters/co-directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. The duo previously collaborated on “Quinceañera,” another nicely done, character driven film.

“Still Alice” provides Julianne Moore with another platform to display her impressive thespian skills. Those blessed with long memories may recall Moore as a regular on the daytime soap opera, “As the World Turns,” back in the ‘80s. The role won her a Daytime Emmy. Moore made the transition to the big screen with a string of highly-regarded performances in such films as “Short Cuts” and “Vanya on 42nd Street.” Oscar nominations piled up with “Boogie Nights,” “The End of the Affair,” “Far from Heaven,” and “The Hours.” Reverting back to television, she portrayed Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, in HBO’s, “Game  Change.” It garnered an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress for Moore.

Moore’s performance in “Still Alice” has inspired well-deserved critical praise.  She has already won a second Golden Glove and garnered a fifth Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. Many Hollywood insiders have touted her as a prohibitive favorite in the category.

A film about Alzheimer’s could easily devolve into bathos. However, courtesy of a nuanced performance by Julianne Moore, “Still Alice” provides a sobering, unsentimental  perspective on the fragility of the human mind.

“Still Alice” ***  PG-13 (for mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference) 101 minutes

 

A  screen capture from a trailer to the film "Still Alice" athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrXrZ5iiR0o

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Still Alice” athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrXrZ5iiR0o

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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