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Movie review: Note-perfect Julianne Moore lifts flawed ‘Still Alice’

Julianne Moore stars as a college professor and mother whose life becomes compromised by Alzhemier’s disease in “Still Alice.”
Julianne Moore stars as a college professor and mother whose life becomes compromised by Alzhemier’s disease in “Still Alice.” Sony Pictures Classics

That Julianne Moore plays vulnerability beautifully is well-documented in moviegoers’ minds and Academy Awards history.

Moore’s Oscar-nominated turn (she’s the front-runner for best actress) as a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” joins her four previously nominated performances (for “Boogie Nights,” “The End of the Affair,” “The Hours” and “Far From Heaven”) in demonstrating Moore’s ability to impart distress without overtly seeking audience sympathy.

With “Alice,” however, she adds a compelling new layer by emphasizing intellect over emotion. Moore’s character, a 50-year-old Columbia University linguistics professor, possesses a razor-sharp mind that allows her to devise ways to try to work around the disease dulling her memory. When the disease marches on despite Alice’s intelligence and best efforts, Moore, and “Alice,” devastate.

As Alice’s Alzheimer’s progresses, Moore’s performance encompasses subtle changes in behavior before diving off a cliff into the disease’s depths. The performance stays true to her character’s emphasis on the cognitive while also – as anyone who has known people with Alzheimer’s can attest – embodying the disease’s ravages.

At first, Alice is with-it most of the time. Then only some of the time. Moore’s eyes flash with confusion as Alice’s determination and intelligence war with her disease.

Moore’s extraordinary performance exists in a film that’s not very good otherwise. But because performance and film are inextricable – as was the case with Meryl Streep and the flawed “Iron Lady” a few years ago – “Alice” is a must-see.

At film’s start, Alice, who is married to a fellow professor (Alec Baldwin) and has three grown children, appears to be a living testament to the adjective “urbane.” She’s well-dressed, fit from a running regimen and such a devoted cook that she shoos family members away from her well-appointed kitchen so she can fix Thanksgiving dinner all on her own.

Alice shows an easy authority in front of students. When not discussing cognitive development, she plays Words With Friends on her cellphone, trading 60-point words with her equally sophisticated daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth).

When people and/or events disrupt the carefully cultivated order of her life, Alice reacts with a touch of condescension – toward the waiter who takes her salad plate too quickly and to her younger daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Alice wants Lydia, a fledgling actress, to get a real job. That condescension, as Moore’s performance shows, will be the first thing to go once Alice starts forgetting words and, at times, where she is.

When her neurologist informs Alice she has familial Alzheimer’s (inherited from an alcoholic father whose late-in-life incoherency Alice attributed to drinking), Alice is determined to exploit her vast mental resources to try to work around it. She does word exercises and charts out a schedule with the assistance of cellphone reminders.

Her demeanor, though, eases up immediately upon diagnosis. The warmth that always lay behind Alice’s stonier qualities comes to the fore. She seems to recognize that whatever advantage she gained by being the smartest person in the room vanished once her disease revealed her to be as vulnerable as every other human being.

Moore’s nuanced work often contrasts with her surroundings. Directed and written by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“Quinceañera”) from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, “Alice” presents a world that seems too perfect even for a perfectionist like Alice.

Alice’s children are archetypes rather than people: Anna is a stunning but uptight lawyer; Tom (Hunter Parrish) a sometimes absent-minded but model-handsome medical student; Lydia is the family’s equally beautiful rebel (or at least as rebellious as one can be while being supported by one’s parents).

Only Stewart gets beyond the archetype. Her authenticity pierces the perfect-family artifice even before Alice’s diagnosis. As Alice, humbled by her disease, grows more authentic herself, she bonds with her youngest child in new ways. Stewart and Moore share a believable familial chemistry.

Baldwin’s character is the hardest to figure out. Though supposedly loving and supportive, the husband often seems testy. That might have less to do with writing than acting. Baldwin’s line readings often are too emphatic.

Eventually, every other character falls away as we marvel at how completely Moore captures Alice’s decline. Attempting to describe the level of tragedy contained in Moore’s performance in the film’s third act brings to mind the limits within Alice’s chosen field of study. Because no words do it justice.

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

STILL ALICE

Cast: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin

Directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

99 minutes

Rated PG-13 (mature thematic material, brief language including a sexual reference)

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