Lawrence Toppman

‘Still Alice’ could touch any heart

The name of the movie is “Still Alice.” But is she?

Is Alice Howland still herself when stripped of her memories, her passions, her ability to communicate? That’s the question asked by this thoughtful movie, which raises an issue any of us might face.

Julianne Moore plays the Columbia University professor whose life gets inverted by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Caring but incredulous husband John (Alec Baldwin), a researcher on the brink of a prestigious move to the Mayo Clinic, doesn’t know how to cope. Their three grown children, who realize they may have inherited the disease, react with fear and undirected anger. Alice remains mostly calm, as bits of her consciousness detach and float away, never to return.

Writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who adapted Lisa Genova’s novel, arrange things conveniently. The Howlands are rich, so they can immediately hire a full-time caretaker. Youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), a would-be actress drifting among jobs, has plenty of time to devote to her ailing mom. Alice’s doctor (Stephen Kunken) quickly diagnoses the problem, remains wise and sympathetic, and helps with transitions.

But whether this story took place at a rich couple’s beach house or in an urban slum, the outcome would be the same: The tethers that tie a human being to work, family and friends would snap irrevocably, one by one. “Still Alice” sounds one tiny note of hope among the clamor of parting: When consciousness goes, love may remain.

The best movie I know about Alzheimer’s, Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her,” deals at length with the impact of the disease on the caretakers. “Still Alice” does that more tangentially, though we can sympathize with John for wanting to move to Minnesota to act on an opportunity that may never recur.

The main strength of “Alice” remains its depiction of the title character’s decaying mind. She struggles to pass for normal, tries to use her disease to make a daughter feel guilty about behavior, attempts to make productive use of her ailment by raising public awareness. Because she’s a professor of linguistics, the loss of her command of words matters more to her than it would to some people.

Moore, a Fayetteville native, delivers a subtle performance that’s almost certain to win her an Oscar on her fifth attempt. Few actresses, especially the handful in their mid-50s that Hollywood is willing to employ, have her combination of intelligence, humor and energy. To watch those qualities ebb away in “Still Alice” wrenches the heart.

P.S. The Ivey Memory Wellness Day Center in Charlotte is giving away free tickets to the movie while supplies last. Tickets must be picked up in person at The Ivey, 6030 Park South Drive; you’re limited to two tickets per person or couple. Tickets may be picked up from 7:30 a m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays. The Ivey, a not-for-profit organization, provides daily care for people living with memory loss due to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or mild cognitive impairment. Any questions? Call The Ivey at 704-909-2070.

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