Still Alice

Still Alice is about a linguist in early fifties who discovers that she is suffering from early onset dementia. It handles her slow deterioration with good taste, underlining how tragic her condition is without turning into a tawdry melodrama about how miserable and unfair life is. Yes, there are a few scenes where Alice has a big emotional breakdown, but the emphasis is mostly on little gestures - on the blank spots she hits before she reorients herself, or the knowing (but silent) looks that her husband shares with her kids when they realize she has just hit a new low. It has everything you would want from a movie about a lingering disease: careful pacing, a quietly humanistic script, subtle acting...

However, I am never going to remember this as a sad movie. No, I am always going to mentally file Still Alice as an unintentional comedy, and it's all because of one scene in the first act. Alice has suspected that she's losing her mind for awhile, and she's even gotten some medical tests done, but she's kept all of her worries secret from her husband. One night when she can't sleep she reaches her breaking point, so she wakes him up and tells him that she's worried that she's going senile. At first he doesn't believe her, but then she starts to bawl, and that's when he knows that she isn't kidding. And that's when I wanted to start laughing.

You see, the instant I saw Julianne Moore, who plays Alice, start to make her tears-are-coming face I had an involuntary flashback to the Youtube supercut called Jullianne Moore Loves to Cry. Because goddamn, it's true - she really does love to cry. And she's good at it! She is to sobbing what Michael Jordan was to dunking a basketball. She embodies unhappiness like Pepe LePew embodies Frenchness. While I was watching that scene I wasn't thinking: Poor Alice. I was thinking: if they ever turn Nick Cave's epic ballad "The Weeping Song" into a movie, then their first priority should be calling J. Mo and getting her on board, because she already lives in an all-weeping-all-the-time-world.

I know that what I just said sounded very sarcastic, and to some extent I am ribbing Julianne Moore, who seems to be drawn towards playing a certain type of overwhelmed character. But I'm also not entirely kidding; she is very good at playing a woman who has been pushed past her breaking point. She knows when to show restraint and when to unleash, so she never comes across as histrionic even when she's being hysterical. More importantly, she has good taste in collaborators, so her teariest performances tend to be in touching movies and not sappy tearjerkers. So, yes, her filmography is kind of ridiculous - but it's also full of great movies that she's great in.

Furthermore, I recognize that my experience with Still Alice was completely subjective, and there's no reason to expect that anyone else would have that same reaction to that scene. In fact, I suspect that most people will find her total emotional breakdown to be intensely touching, because it is a really vulnerable moment played totally straight by two very accomplished actors. It's just that I have always had solid defense mechanisms against emotional manipulation, so I am always going to be looking for an escape hatch in a scene where some fictional character's life is falling apart. My salvation came in the form of a half remembered Youtube supercut this time, but it could have been anything - when someone starts to bawl like that I tend to stop looking at the actor's face and to start looking at the pattern of the wallpaper or the title of the books on their bookshelves.

I can't really argue for or against Still Alice. I don't think the world needs another movie about an incurable disease that strikes without rhyme or reason, but if people are going to make a movie about an incurable disease that strikes without rhyme or reason then they should do it the way Still Alice did, where the focus is on the characters, and they are allowed a certain amount of dignity even as their lives slowly descend into tragedy. And if you are going to make that movie then you should definitely call Julianne Moore, because she's going to portray her dignified and diseased character perfectly. But just know that if you do make that movie, there is a good chance that I might laugh at it, because there's something inherently silly about a healthy actor pretending to get sick so they can manipulate a crowd of strangers into feeling sad about the fake death of a fictional person. Or at least I think that's inherently silly - your mileage might vary, depending on whether or not you watch the weeping actors or the static wallpaper behind them.

Winner: Draw

Still Alice on IMDB