Still Alice Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Actors tend to be unduly rewarded for playing characters who suffer from a physical or mental disability, as if that represents a higher degree of difficulty. So one could be forgiven for looking with skepticism at the acclaim for Julianne Moore’s performance in Still Alice, which is very likely to win her an Oscar later this month. Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease; the role provides her with an opportunity to detail the gradual loss of memory and other cognitive faculties that makes Alzheimer’s perhaps the most distressing ordeal imaginable. And she’s genuinely superb, often actively working against the material’s inherently tearjerking nature. A scene in which Alice creates a video instructing her future self on how to commit suicide, taking advantage of the mental impairment she knows she’ll then be experiencing, is almost unbearably poignant.
Unfortunately, the rest of Still Alice isn’t up to her standard. While the first half, charting Alice’s herculean struggle to retain every shred of her identity that she possibly can, is impressively astringent, the second half turns into something of a public service announcement, with Alice delivering an earnest speech about living with Alzheimer’s (highlighting each sentence as she reads it, so that she doesn’t read it again) and engaging in heartfelt but maudlin conversations with her husband (Alec Baldwin) and youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart). In the end, it becomes the disease-of-the-week movie it had struggled not to be, as if ironically echoing its heroine’s own deterioration.