“Still Alice” deals with such a disturbing topic — early-onset Alzheimer’s — that most of us will decline to watch it, and those who do will take their seats with the butterflies of trepidation in full flight.
It is well, then, that a big reward awaits those who take the plunge.
Julianne Moore has dominated this awards season with her performance in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s drama, and it takes only about 10 minutes to see why. She delivers a brilliant performance that buoys “Still Alice” just when it seems too much to bear. Oscar is waiting in the wings.
Moore plays Alice, who at age 50 seems to have it all. She’s a professor of linguistics at Columbia University and the author of a respected book. She has a husband (Alec Baldwin, doing a 180 from his frequent sleazeball portrayals) who clearly adores her.
The couple have two overachieving offspring: a lawyer (Kate Bosworth) and a doctor (Hunter Parrish). Their third (Kristen Stewart) blew off college to become an actress — not that anyone is paying her to act.
It is while guest-lecturing at a West Coast university that Alice suddenly loses her train of thought. After a tense moment she recovers nicely (“I knew I shouldn’t have had that Champagne”) and continues.
A moment of forgetfulness, nothing more.
Except that upon her return to New York, while jogging on the campus she has traversed 10 times a week for 20 years, Alice pulls up short, bewildered to find herself lost on such familiar ground. Her serene, confident features crumple. It soon passes, but not without her wordless panic grabbing and shaking each one of us.
The eventual diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s. Worse, it is of the familial variety, meaning that her children have a 50-50 chance of developing the disease.
Glatzer and Westmoreland, the writing/directing team whose previous efforts were “Quinceanera” and the Errol Flynn-centered “The Last of Robin Hood,” take a big leap here in ambition and quality.
But in a sense they have dug themselves into a hole. Alice’s story is, of necessity, one of slow deterioration, a series of scenes that chronicle the disease’s unstoppable advance, from mild social awkwardness to incontinence and beyond.
Even in those prolonged periods when she’s functioning more or less normally, Alice carries the crushing knowledge of what awaits her. And she knows that some — even family members — may misinterpret her symptoms as pure cussedness.
“I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t be so ashamed.”
But the filmmakers find ways to mitigate at least some of the tale’s heaviness.
Alice’s illness brings her closer to her actress daughter, with whom she has long clashed. She notes that when they now fight, she cannot hold a grudge: “It’s not like I can remember it.”
(Stewart proves once again that when freed from the soul-sucking “Twilight” franchise she can give really good performances.)
And the film hits a deeply emotional (if somewhat contrived) high when Alice addresses a gathering of Alzheimer patients and doctors to express her determination to cling to her sense of self for as long as possible.
Stylistically, “Alice” is a straightforward affair. Glatzer and Westmoreland don’t get cute, although they did come up with one hugely effective encounter between Alice and her neurologist:
The camera rests on Moore’s face — we only hear the M.D. — as she is asked questions and given little memory challenges devised to test her cognitive abilities. It’s a long, single-shot setup, and it has the effect of putting each of us in Alice’s position, trying to perform the mental gymnastics while tamping down the growing panic.
“Still Alice” reminds that even a grim tale can find transcendence in a great performance. Julianne Moore delivers, and then some.