It happens every year. A movie comes along that’s completely mediocre and undeserving of much thought beyond the fact that it features a strong performance from a beloved actor or actress. That’s all it takes to a get unwarranted mountains of praise and attention. This year, that movie is ‘Still Alice’, a capably dull made-for-TV grade drama about Alzheimer’s Disease, which boasts a devastatingly heartfelt performance from Julianne Moore. All the accolades coming the actress’ way are well-deserved. It’s just a shame that this is the movie she’s finally getting long overdue gold statues for.
Moore stars as Columbia linguistics professor (Oh, the irony! It hurts!) Alice Howland, who seems to have an idyllic life. She has a dream job and is respected in her field. She has three beautiful adult children coming along nicely (despite one black sheep daughter played by professional lip-biter Kristen Stewart). She even married an Alec Baldwin type – played by Alec Baldwin as nice Alec Baldwin, not sleazy Alec Baldwin. Everything is just so gosh darn perfect. And then, just as she’s crossing the threshold into 50, her memory starts to slip. At first it happens in amusing “Oh, mom…” ways, but then more dramatically, like forgetting she’d already met one of her children’s spouses. It turns out that Alice has early onset Alzheimer’s and things will get far worse rather quickly. From there, the movie is a slow-burn build watching Alice slip away. Cue the tears.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie like ‘Still Alice’. It’s a perfectly acceptable exploration of a tragically common disease that few people know much about unless they’ve seen it firsthand. These sorts of movies should exist as educational tools, and for viewers who love crying hysterically at melodrama. However, they aren’t art no matter how many awards get thrown at them annually. They pander to viewers and follow formulas as strictly as any cornball action movie or horror flick, but get taken more seriously because they blatantly manipulate audiences into easy tears rather than easy cheers or scares.
Aside from a bit of research about their disease of choice, co-writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (working from a novel by Lisa Genova) have done little beyond tap into the movie-of-the-week formula and milk it for all the hankies they possibly can. Sure, ‘Still Alice’ is professionally made, well-cast and will cause sniffles, but it’s also painfully formulaic in a manner that the filmmakers would be called to task for were they not working in a wholesomely respectable genre.
Of course, Julianne Moore complicates the impression the mediocre movie will leave on viewers. She’s been the best actress kicking around Hollywood for decades now. You can’t call her work in this film effortless, because this sort of thing isn’t easy. However, she makes it look effortless. The script might call for melodrama, but Moore never slips out of realism for a second. She plays the role with heartbreaking commitment and an unwavering ear for truth. She’s extraordinary, no doubt about that, and she elevates the movie on her shoulders single-handedly.
However, don’t confuse a good performance with a good movie. As wonderful as Moore truly is here, ‘Still Alice’ remains tripe. It’s just tripe with a diamond in the center. Given the lack of competition in the Best Actress category this year, there’s a definite chance that Moore will walk home with an Oscar for ‘Still Alice’. If that happens, the statue might be deserved for her good work, but it will sure be a shame that after years of bringing magic to unconventional films, the actress finally gets the gold for being the best part of a mediocre misfire.