There's a master class in screen acting coming to a theater near you, which is reason enough (for those who care about such things) to see "Still Alice." Heavily favored to take home a Best Actress trophy at this year's Oscars, Julianne Moore plays the titular character afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer's.
Movies about illness cut with a double-edged sword: In one sense, they're a sure thing. Most all potential audience members fear death and the diseases that precipitate it, Alzheimer's being one of the cruelest. On the other hand, films about disease run a real risk of earning the "disease-of-the-week" label, born of a time when such stories of struggling against illness dotted the network-TV (and, later, Lifetime cable) landscape.
As adapted by writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (last year's "The Last of Robin Hood"), "Still Alice" derives from a 2007 bestselling novel by Lisa Genova. The premise immediately puts skeptical viewers on guard with its overly neat irony: Dr. Alice Howland is a cognitive-psychology professor (and world-renowned linguistics expert) who's uniquely qualified to understand what the degenerative disease is doing to her as it proceeds on its death march, as well as to devise coping mechanisms to attempt to delay the inevitable. At the tender age of 50, Alice is also a statistical rarity, which is, of course, no comfort.
The plot, such as it is, concerns how Alice handles her illness, personally and psychologically, as well as troubleshooting its impact on her career, her family members and their relationships. Husband John (Alec Baldwin), a research scientist, is sympathetic but perhaps insufficiently empathetic, his practical-mindedness threatening his ability to love Alice to the nth degree as her disease demands. Their kids (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) don't much lack for loving concern, but have the additional worry of wondering -- or perhaps worse, coming to know by testing -- whether they have inherited the genetic markers of Alzheimer's.
Through it all, we stick closely to Alice's side as she frets about not being a burden and determines not to live past her mind's expiration date. It's all extremely upsetting and deeply sad, but "Still Alice" never distinguishes itself through style and metaphor (as did the 2012 French drama "Amour") and rarely achieves grace in story, dialogue or character dynamics (as did Sarah Polley's 2006 "Away From Her," also about the devastation of Alzheimer's on a marriage).
Still, the film hums with humanity in the person of Moore, whose towering performance shows a staggering technical proficiency (the low-budget film could not afford to shoot in sequence, compounding Moore's challenge) and never loses a whit of emotional resonance. Moore invites us inside Alice's pain and frustration and fear, and it becomes ours (kudos too to Stewart for maximizing her scenes as the family's black sheep, whose sensitivity suddenly makes her an M.V.P.).
In preparing us for the human dimensions of disease, "Still Alice" ends up something of a class act.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference. One hour, 41 minutes.