In Still Alice, newly minted Oscar winner Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50-year-old recently diagnosed with a hereditary form of Alzheimer's. At one point in the movie, after a series of not-bad days and pretty-awful ones, Alice and her family attend an off-Broadway production of The Three Sisters starring the youngest Howland daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart). We see Lydia enact Chekhov's dialogue with appropriate, impressive anxiety and fortitude, and our view of Alice in the audience suggests that she sees it, too. After the play ends, the family goes backstage to congratulate Lydia, and Alice, with carefully chosen words, praises her daughter for her complex rendering of Chekhovian heart and humanity. Lydia smiles and blushes; this might be the most interest her mother has ever shown in her acting career. Then Alice asks what play Lydia is doing next, and whether she'll be sticking around New York much longer. And in the reaction shot that follows, the heartbreak in Lydia's eyes verifies what we immediately suspect: Alice, at this moment, has no idea who Lydia is.
I wish I could tell you this is the saddest scene in writers/directors Richard Glatzer's and Wash Westmoreland's dramatic exploration of the devastating effects - for all concerned - of Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, I can't; if it gives you any indication of what to expect from Still Alice, after that backstage encounter, there's at least a half hour of movie to go. Yet while I'd strongly recommend bringing tissues, I'd also recommend not skipping the experience for fear of being bummed out beyond belief, because what Moore and, yes, Stewart do in this film (an adaptation of Lisa Genova's novel) is simply too powerful to miss.
In truth, I can't wholly say that about Still Alice itself, well-intentioned and moving though it is. The dreadful irony of Alice's rare malady befalling an intellectual - a linguistics professor, no less - with a prosperous lecture-circuit career feels a bit contrived, and a bit borrowed from Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit; the queasy suspense generated from watching Alice orate feels like an unnecessarily cruel means of compounding her humiliation. (What will happen when she loses her train of thought? What will happen when she inevitably drops her notes and they scatter on the floor?) Ilan Eshkeri's pushily plaintive score, with its horror-flick overtones in scenes of Alice getting lost in familiar surroundings, overworks our emotions when silence would do the trick with far greater effectiveness. And while the roles of Alice's two other children - Kate Bosworth's pregnant Anna and Hunter Parrish's ineffectual Tom - have been sketchily conceived, at least their performers do more with them than Alec Baldwin does as Alice's workaholic husband. Considering how much fun they appeared to have together on 30 Rock, it's unfortunate that Baldwin seems so disconnected from Moore, and his own character, even in the sequences in which Alice is fully present; the bored-looking actor drops empty bromides and delivers his lines without a smidgeon of concern - even faux concern. (Maybe Baldwin's feeling a bit cinematically neutered these days; this is, after all, the second year in a row in which he's played the unsympathetic spouse to the eventual Best Actress champ.)
As you might have expected, however, Julianne Moore is more than enough reason to catch the movie. Without any flashy histrionics, especially in scenes that would seem to beg for them, she lends astonishing clarity and variety to Alice's degeneration. Early in the film, Alice, on her laptop, records a message to herself on what steps must be taken when she reaches the absolute end of her tether. (They involve a hidden bottle of pills with the taped-on instruction "Swallow all with water" - told you events get even sadder.) And when, near the end, the now-housebound woman stumbles upon her pre-recorded message, and the camera alternates between images of the laptop's vibrant Alice and the living room's vacantly childlike one, you well up not just because of the scene's inherent poignancy, but because Moore, in 90 minutes, has completely filled in every emotional transition between the two Alices. We've seen her fear and frustration and abject helplessness, but also her cleverness and hope and the deep love she holds for her family as long as she can (which, because it's Alzheimer's, can't possibly be long enough), and it's wrenching, unforgettable work. Yet Moore's brilliance lies particularly in the endless, effortless empathy she instills. Her beautiful commitment to character, and refusal to indulge in maudlin sentiment, allows you to mourn, but unlike Alice herself, you don't suffer.
Moore's magnificence, it should go without saying, is no shock. Kristen Stewart's portrayal nearly matching it kind of is - though it shouldn't be. All those Twilights made it easy to forget just how strong her screen instincts are when she's given the right material, but it's a pleasure to report that the fierce, copious talent from Panic Room and Into the Wild and Adventureland has returned more focused and luminous than ever. Lydia isn't a very big role, but Stewart fills this fledgling stage actress with so much natural curiosity and such strength of character that she emerges as a major presence, and her scenes with Moore - delicately argumentative, achingly affecting - are handily among the movie's finest. If not for Moore and Stewart, Still Alice would likely be one of those works you admire that would be too depressing for a second viewing. Instead, thanks to them, I'm already planning a third and fourth.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Recently arriving on video-on-demand platforms the same day it hit cineplexes, writer/director Richard LaGravenese's The Last Five Years is the film adaptation of composer Jason Robert Brown's two-character musical about the beginning and end of a romance, with the male's side of things told in chronological order, from first flush of love to breakup, and the female's side told in reverse. It's an ingenious conceit, and the music is gorgeous, and the leads are the dynamic Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan ... and I sure wish I liked the movie more than I do. This seems, however, to be a case where a stage-to-screen transfer - a faithful one, at any rate - was just going to be innately strange. In the stage version, the characters of Cathy and Jamie spend most of their time singing solos, and that's what happens here, too. (Only at the very end and halfway through the piece - when the lovers "meet in the middle" Benjamin Button-style - are we treated to duets.) Yet while this theatrical conceit can work quite well in, you know, a theatre, it can't help but seem stagnant and a little silly in the more inherently realistic medium of cinema; you wonder why, with Cathy and Jamie crooning near but not with one another, the characters being sung to aren't allowed to sing back. And there are other oddities: Cathy's confusingly presented chronology, where she sometimes appears to be singing about experiences that haven't happened to her yet; the bafflingly uneven sound design, with nearly all of Jordan's numbers sounding like they were captured live and nearly all of Kendrick's sounding studio-recorded. In general, as a movie, The Last Five Years is mostly a disappointment, and something of a mess. Yet it has wall-to-wall Jason Robert Brown songs and Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan singing them, so as messes go, it's one that the show's fans - eager for any film of this beloved musical - probably still won't mind wallowing in. We know who we are.