Of the five Best Actress nominees of 2014, two of them — Marion Cotillard and Julianne Moore — were nominated for films that practically no one had heard of. Hell, both movies only got a token qualifying run last year and didn’t get anything close to a wide American theatrical release until 2015. I know that mainstream cinema has never been kind toward gender equality, but that has to signal a new low for leading female roles.
For several months, Moore has been the odds-on favorite to win the award for her performance in Still Alice. I assume that this awards buzz comes entirely from critics, considering that only 135 theaters are playing it nationwide and only $1.5 million worth of people bought a ticket to see it. Of course, that’s not including all the people who downloaded the film illegally when the Sony leaks released it to the internet last year.
The film was written and directed by the team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who previously tried and failed to court Oscar voters with The Last of Robin Hood. Other Academy hopefuls in the cast include Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth and *ahem* Kristen Stewart. Little wonder that Moore was the only one who walked away with a nomination.
Especially since the entire film revolves around her performance.
Alice (Moore) is a highly influential neurology professor who is suddenly diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s. That’s basically the entire premise. Which means that the whole film more or less consists of Julianne Moore acting through the various phases of Alzheimer’s in 100 minutes.
Alec Baldwin is on hand to play Alice’s husband, a reputable medical expert in his own right. Kate Bosworth plays Alice’s older daughter, who’s trying to conceive with her husband. Kristen Stewart plays the younger daughter, a struggling community theatre actor (Perfect!). Hunter Parrish plays Alice’s son, and fuck if I could tell you the first thing about him.
These supporting characters are a variety platter of wasted potentials and blank slates. Bosworth’s character is a great example: When it’s discovered that this type of Alzheimer’s is genetic, she suddenly faces a very serious dilemma about having babies. Hell, all three kids now have to deal with the difficult choice of whether they want to be tested for this particular mutation and what they could hope to do if the test comes back positive. Yet this potentially fascinating conundrum is swept quickly and completely under the rug after one or two scenes and never mentioned again.
It also doesn’t help that of the entire supporting cast, Baldwin is the only one who could possibly hope to hold his own against Moore. At least he gets in a few solid moments as the man who tries to stay in denial for as long as possible, supporting for his wife until he finally and inevitably buckles under the strain. And even then, Baldwin — like all the other actors — has to serve as a sounding board for Moore. I don’t even mind that Bosworth and Stewart are still subpar actresses; this film only needs them to be blank slates and they can at least handle that much.
So let’s move on to Moore herself. She’s amazing. But of course you already knew that. Don’t get me wrong, a fantastic performance from a great actor like Julianne Moore is always worth watching, but what does she have to prove at this point? She already has several years’ worth of great work on record, and four previous Oscar nods to show for it. An Oscar vehicle (and an Oscar itself, quite frankly) should be considered redundant at this point.
It would be something if the character was amazing, but that’s not exactly the case here. Before the diagnosis, we can see for ourselves that Alice has everything pretty much all figured out. She has a great marriage, a wonderful career, a lovely house (in New York City, no less!), and three grown children who are all doing well for themselves. Sure, her relationship with her youngest daughter is a little strained, but at least they’ve agreed to disagree.
So it’s not like Alice has any unfinished business. Nothing’s in danger of falling apart without her, and she’s got a strong support system through all of this. As a result, we in the audience have nothing to latch onto aside from Alice’s deteriorating condition. Though at least Alice herself has the presence of mind to make the occasional joke about her memory loss. She even uses it to guilt-trip the odd family member, which is kind of funny in its execution.
Overall, however, it doesn’t seem like the film has anything to say about Alzheimer’s except that it sucks. Which leads me to wonder who that message is for. I mean, it’s not like Alzheimer’s is a particularly strange or unusual condition; some estimates say that as of 2014, over 5 million Americans are living with the illness. It’s the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, for God’s sake. Moreover, every single one of us has (or will have) been in the position of caring for a sick relative. If we’re lucky, we might live long enough to be that sick relative someday. We already know this, yet the film seems content to portray the situation without bringing any new ideas or perspectives into the equation.
Yes, it’s unique that this particular strain of Alzheimer’s hit so early, it hit a prominent neuroscientist, and it may have a genetic factor that impacts Alice’s kids. All of those points could potentially have brought some new and unique flavor to the story if the film bothered to do anything with them. Alice could have been a 70-year-old woman in otherwise perfect health, who wasn’t any kind of teacher or medical expert, and the story would have played out exactly the same.
For comparison’s sake, consider Beginners, a film about a man whose father dies of cancer. Again, tragically, not an unusual problem. Except that Beginners juxtaposed two different storylines, showing Ewan McGregor’s character struggling to rebuild his life after his dad’s passing while also showing Christopher Plummer rebuild his life after his wife’s passing. Even better, Plummer played a man who was trying to live and love openly as a gay man even as he was dying. That movie packed on so many emotional layers that the death still hit hard even when we knew it was coming, and it felt like the movie had so much more to say aside from “cancer sucks.” This movie, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to try something so creative.
I don’t mean to say that Still Alice is a bad movie, just a useless one. The film’s sole objective was for Julianne Moore to give a moving portrayal of an Alzheimer’s patient, and it succeeds in that goal marvelously. But we didn’t need any more proof that Moore is a great actress, we didn’t need a movie to tell us that Alzheimer’s is awful, and we didn’t need a character to put a human face to the illness. This movie doesn’t tell us anything new or creative, which leaves me struggling to find a reason why it’s worth the time or ticket price to watch.
I can only recommend this to awards completionists and fans of Moore. Alec Baldwin fans may find something in here to like as well. No one else has any reason to bother.