Tuesday, December 23, 2014

5 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching "Still Alice"

1. Have you ever gotten so drunk at a party that you couldn't remember your address to give to the taxi driver on your way home? If Julianne Moore hasn't, she must know exactly how it feels. While watching her performance as a college professor struggling with a rare form of Alzheimer's that unexpectedly strikes otherwise vibrant and healthy 50-year-olds, I kept having flashbacks to my own bout of alcohol-induced amnesia. Yeah, that's right: "bout." It's only happened once!

I never stopped appreciating Julianne Moore as an actress, but it's been forever since I've loved her (circa 1999's Magnolia, to be completely honest). Still Alice reminds me of why I first fell for her (circa 1992's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, her second film) and why I first adored her in the first place (circa 1995's Safe). In some ways, Alice is Julianne coming full circle from Safe, playing another woman in the grips of a mystery illness. Once again, she nails that what-the-f**k-is-happening-to-me mix of fear and disbelief that accompanies gradually and inexplicably finding your health slipping away.

2. As someone whose personal and public identity is also closely tied to words and being able to use them well (Julianne's Alice character, Alice Howland, is a celebrated cognitive psychologist), I related to her situation in a way that made watching the movie more uncomfortable than it otherwise might have been. Initially pegging those strange symptoms as a brain tumor is exactly the conclusion I would have jumped to.

Perhaps that's why I found Alice so likable, though neither Julianne nor the script bend over backwards to make her so. It's interesting that for her, the greatest tragedy of the disease isn't losing touch with her loved ones but losing her mind. It's the less sentimental approach, but that Julianne managed to keep me perhaps even more invested in what was happening to Alice while periodically checking to make sure my own memory was still intact says as much about her acting skill as it does about where my own priorities lie.

3. It's easy to draw comparisons to Away from Her, the 2006 film in which Julie Christie played a woman losing her grip to Alzheimer's. Julie scored her fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination for that movie, and it's almost a foregone conclusion that Still Alice will earn Julianne her third in that category. (It'll bring her nomination total to five overall.)

But there's a big difference between the two movies. Despite Julie's Best Actress status, Away focused mostly on the husband's point of view, to the film's detriment. Yes, it must be painful to not only slowly lose your wife to Alzheimer's but to also lose her to a fellow patient in a care facility. Still, you don't cast an actress like Julie Christie as the tortured lead in a film and then ask the audience to spend most of the movie focusing on someone else's agony. I believe that cost her the Oscar.

Sorry, Marion Cotillard, but Julie should have won. You may have been great in La vie en rose, but I have a problem with people winning Oscars for musical biopics in which they lip sync. (Sorry, Jamie Foxx. If What's Love Got to Do With It's Angela Bassett had lose to The Piano's Holly Hunter, you should have been congratulating Hotel Rwanda's Don Cheadle on Oscar night 2005.) On the plus side, Marion, I think you should be in the running this year for The Immigrant (but probably won't be as Oscar seems to be over you since that one-night stand), right alongside Julianne and Wild's Reese Witherspoon. She won her biopic Oscar the way God intended, by also singing the part of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

4. I wish the movie had looked more closely at Alice's marriage to John (Alec Baldwin), who kind of seems like an afterthought. It glosses over the fact that John, though supportive and loving, treats his wife's declining faculties mostly as an inconvenience. Maybe Alice meant to have a word with him about that but forget to. He was no what's-his-name from Amour!

Elsewhere, the strained family dynamics -- did sisters Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) hate each other or what? -- made me glad that I never see most of my immediate kin. It's strange how so many of us force ourselves to be around people we really don't like just because we share a bloodline, a bloodline which, as Still Alice makes abundantly clear, could potentially kill you. I'd rather spend Christmas solo, thank you.

5. Kristen Stewart is blossoming into such an effective actress. She's come a long way since On the Road a couple of years ago, now holding her own with the great Julianne Moore. It would have been so easy for her to overplay the petulant in Alice's youngest daughter, but Kristen actually makes her the most likable of the three children.

Maybe that's the benefit of her having more screen time than Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish, but even at her brattiest, railing against Alice for reading her journal, Kristen lets us see flickers of Lydia's compassion, like she's just holding back the rage. That's a tough balancing act to pull off when the scenery must have been so tempting (chomp chomp).

Clearly Kristen learned a thing or two from the woman playing her mom. If she keeps it up, we might soon be seeing her name in the Oscar conversation. Why should Jennifer Lawrence keep getting all the twentysomething love?
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