Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 14, 2015 9:59 am 
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Impeccable is not unimpeachable

Alzheimer's is one of the most dreaded diseases, the more so since everyone who ages has potentially frightening phantom symptoms of it -- loss of short-term memory, even moments of disorientation or confusion. When it's the real thing, it means complete loss of control, gradual disintegration, a vanishing of identity while remaining inside one's body. Moreover this is a growing problem whose care costs are high and rising. In Still Alice, Alice (played superbly by Julianne Moore), who is afflicted with relatively rare early-onset Alzheimer's just after turning 50, on the contrary she increasingly isn't "still" herself, but struggles with diminishing returns to hold onto the remains of what she has of a formerly rich life and high mental functioning. And to make her struggle more dramatic, the deck is loaded far in her favor at the outset. Still seemingly in her prime when diagnosed, she is a renowned professor of linguistics at Columbia with a loving husband (Alec Baldwin) and three handsome and accomplished children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and most notably, the now clearly excellent Kristen Stewart).

Based on the 2007 self-published first novel and eventual bestseller by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, the film is a knowledgeable and specific delineation of the details of Alzheimer's from the point of view of the sufferer herself. Given the unsettling and horrifying nature of the diesease and Julianne Moore's fine work, it's a movie you can't look away from, and in some ways must admire. At least we admire Moore's elegance and restraint as an actress, and we're drawn in by the fear everybody to some extent has. But unfortunately, as adapted and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice is flat and conventional, little more than a glossy, high-toned TV-style disease-of-the-week picture. As sometimes happens, it exists as a showcase for a performance. Moore is much better than the movie.

A sense of what this might have been emerges if one looks at Sarah Polley's Away from Her and Michael Haneke's Amour, two films about women with similar problems but coming at a later stage of life. Polley's directorial debut has the flaw of overly sweetening the Alice Munro tale she's adapting, but it brings other characters and situations into focus and looks at the husband's point of view. Haneke's usual austerity and rigor make his Amour uniquely powerful and distinctive, a film both harrowing and enobling. Amour is also a study of a truly old couple, and he had two legendary (and really old!) actors, Emanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, to work with. Except for Kristen Stewart, whose character is interesting because she's in conflict with her mother, and the Alzheimer's doesn't change that, and despite the warm presence of Alec Baldwin, none of the actors other than Moore is given a three-dimensional character to play. Relations between the siblings are simplistic. In the rush to medical tragedy, everything becomes generic. They all exist as background for the ordeal of Alice. And the film is pulled down by conventional style and tinny, generic music that pushes its agenda in obvious, obtrusive and sometimes maudlin ways. So do editing and camerawork that depict mental confusion heavyhandedly using revolving camera, jump cuts and blurred focus.

This could have been a powerful and three-dimensional movie, but it seems as though the odds were against it. Lisa Genova has become a specialist in lecturing on Alzheimer's and writing books that dramatize neurological problems. Her Still Alice deals with heartbreak, but it's a kind of instructional book. Glatzer and Westmoreland have personal involvement in that Glatzer has recently been diagnosed with ALS, so this couple too now faces a very different, but also incurable, steadily debilitating disease. This is heartbreaking, and the two life partners working together on this film despite Glatzer's growing disability, in Westmoreland's words, "with his hands and arms barely working," when he "could no longer feed or dress himself," is admirable and brave, and clearly a labor of love. However this is not the raw material of art, but of a movie-of-the-week.

Julianne Moore has played a lot of troubled, disturbed women, and she always looks great doing it. Todd Haynes' Safe is one of her triumphs, better really than the more celebrated, campy star turn she delivered later (still with admirable subtlety) in Haynes' Far from Heaven. The thing about Safe is that it too is about a woman with a disease, but the film is more troubling, authentic, and artistic because we don't know what the disease is, and we don't altogether know if it's even real. Haynes, with the restrained complicity of Moore, fills us with an increasingly pervasive, many-layered sense of dread, worrying us about identity, self, and the world. This is the kind of movie we want to go to: to learn about the world and about people -- not about a disease.

Still Alice on the other hand simply delivers, in handsome, if generic, settings, events that occur to a person with Alzheimer's -- the verbal lacunae, growing failures in little memory tests, the revealing scans and diagnosis, the unexpected moments of disorientation in familiar places: it's all cut and dried. Certainly all this is heartbreaking. The more so, because it happens to someone beautiful, intellectually accomplished, and relatively young. And the information that this kind of Alzheimer's is genetically transmitted means horror and bad news for Alice's children. But at some point we begin to wonder: is this just the story of a disease? Where is the film?

Still Alice is full of details we can observe in a documentary, and there actually are some good ones. Among them are Alan Berliner's fine First Cousin Once Removed and Banker White and Anna Fitch's The Genius of Marian. Nothing can beat the specificity of these two studies of relatives with Alzheimer's, also people, by the way, who were very accomplished, and those films have the virtue of being direct observation.

In Still Alice, Westmoreland has said, he and his partner wanted to achieve the same "crisp and direct tone" as Genora's book. A desire to avoid sentimentality is admirable, but there seems to have also been a misguided need on their part to dazzle us with fineness. This is reflected in the too-perfect setting of Alice and her husband's ideal New York professional lives, complete with brownstone, beach house, and home-movie seaside memories. Despite the tragedy of the disease, unfortunately "crisp and direct" comes out as tidy and pat. Still Alice may be impeccable. But it is not unimpeachable.

Still Alice, 99 mins., debuted at Toronto, playing at other festivals. Following a limited release 5 December 2014, it comes into US theaters 16 January 2015.

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