A Sadness to Remember
3 & ½ popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Exiting from a screening of “Still Alice,” the heartwrenching tale of a renowned linguistics professor’s valiant struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a fellow viewer bemoaning the fragility of life adamantly apprised her pal, “…which is exactly why I’m going to Costa Rica!” I analogously thought ‘Ferrari’… as if some consolation prize could possibly assuage any fears of the life-stealing horrors just witnessed. Oh, the angst. There are movies that you see over and over, and then there is this type. Powerful, educative and trenchant, once is more than enough.
Devastatingly portrayed in a performance that has garnered Julianne Moore an Oscar, Alice Howland has defined herself by a happy marriage, three grown children she can be proud of and her fully acknowledged intelligence. The go-to expert in her field, she is a frequent lecturer when not teaching at Columbia. It’s who she is. In one very touching scene, her equally distinguished husband, capably played by Alec Baldwin, tells her, “You’re the smartest person I know.” But now, this insidious dreadfulness aims to erase her raison d’être, her very being.
Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who adapted the screenplay from a novel by Lisa Genova, pull few punches, enlightening us without sweetening the medicine. If one is lucky enough not to have witnessed firsthand the invasion of this unthinkable indignity, the chronicling will adequately and responsibly affirm what you suspected and then some. Although written as a dramatization, the sad tidings are delivered with the dutifulness of a documentary, sensationally personalized by Miss Moore.
Each major stage in the disorder’s progression is masterfully depicted: the effects on self, family and how society deals with it. So we sit there, helpless, moved and anguishing in the knowledge of what surely must follow. We soon like Alice, feel for her, maybe even shake our fists at the fates…there but for the grace of G-d and all that stuff. If you know some Shakespeare, a pertinent Yiddish expression someone’s granny might have offered, or something from the Dali Lama, you mutter it now. I thought of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
You see, we’re humans and don’t simply go along with whatever Mother Nature tosses us…just the good stuff, like love, hot dogs, puppies, your kid learning to fly on her own. Otherwise, we’re hardwired to change things, like ousting Polio, child labor and Nehru jackets, even if it takes a millennium. Watching Alice fight the good fight and wondering what to do with this onslaught of cold, uncaring reality, it occurs to quietly promise our fellow human being that her suffering won’t be for naught, whether that means more compassion or an extra buck in the envelope.
Hence, while Miss Moore’s thespic elegance is in itself an entrancing tutorial in characterization and transition reminiscent of Bette Davis’s more memorable works, contemporized of course, we are not so much entertained as we are reminded of what’s important in life. In the otherwise linear telling of her travail, she flashes back to those little, cherished moments of connection…to her environment, to her loved ones, and to her soul.
Confronted with the daunting challenge before her, Alice develops survival stratagems, including an emergency exit plan sure to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, if so equipped. Let’s face it. This isn’t a fantasy replete with a magic cure just before the closing credits. I won’t be giving anything away by acknowledging that this can’t possibly end well. Still, by the time the disease truly grabs hold, it says something about us that we’ve developed a movie friendship and thus a need to see things through, to vicariously stay by Alice’s side.
Sharing in the grand commiseration is a cast of solidly credible supporting performances led by Alec Baldwin as John, the notably stressed but obviously capable spouse at first in denial, yet ultimately up to the task. Upstanding, albeit absorbed in his biological research, he is a scientist and therefore a realist, offering here a lesson in how to survive the tragedy of the primary caretaker without letting your own life veer totally off course. Cold? You decide. A bevy of philosophical dilemmas about obligation and compassion inundate.
Nope, unless you’re a professional looking to mine the nuances of the directors’ noble delve into Alzheimer’s disease, you won’t want to see this film over and over, a symptom which could indicate a pathology in itself. All of which is why Moviedom doesn’t make too many of these altruistic works. There’s little foreseeable shelf value. It’s heavy lifting… cerebral stuff, much more ennobling of the human spirit than entertaining in the multiplex sense of the term. Hardly business as usual, it is ironically bittersweet that “Still Alice” imparts some enduring memories.
“Still Alice,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland and stars Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart. Running time: 101 minutes