Let's just get this out of the way: Julianne Moore deserves and has deserved an Oscar. She will likely get one this year for her brilliant, nuanced, and painful performance as Alice Howland, the fifty-year-old protagonist of this film who has been stricken with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Having been nominated five times—and having delivered far more than five worthy performances—she is one of Hollywood's most long-overdue actresses for Academy recognition, if not the most so. She is far and away the top reason to see Still Alice, an otherwise workmanlike film that has few other distinguishing features beyond its wonderful lead actress.
Alice is a well respected linguistics professor at Columbia University. She has three children—Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart)—and a loving husband, John (Alec Baldwin). She is diagnosed with an extremely rare, congenital form of Alzheimer's that she inherited from her father (and may have passed on to her children). The disease begins to work slowly, at first, causing Alice to forget words and lose track of personal responsibilities. But then she gets lost while on a run and panics. She begins to rely on her iPhone to work as her memory, but when she loses that, too, her world starts to spiral out of control. Before the worst part begins, Alice records a video meant for her future self, in which she gives instructions on how to surreptitiously commit suicide, saving herself and her family the trouble of dealing with the disease.
It's just that sort of thing that rubs me the wrong way about Still Alice. The film was adapted by its directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from Lisa Genova's novel of the same name, so certain plot contrivances may be direct from the source. I don't know because I haven't read the book. What I do know is that Glatzer and Westmoreland milk the drama from this high-tech suicide note for all it's worth, in an effective but deeply troubling manner. I found their use of Alice's threatened death to be exploitive and insensitive. One can't even blame their misuse of this plot beat on lack of experience, as Still Alice is their fourth feature together. I chalk it up to tone deafness and a lack of skill.
Visually, the film is presentable but has little to comment on. The one trick that Glatzer and Westmoreland employ with great frequency is to plunge the world around Alice out of focus when she is feeling particularly assailed by her illness. It is initially disorienting, and quite uncomfortable to look at, but once they use it for the fifth time, the technique feels stale, as though they had only one ace up their sleeves. Luckily, the strings-heavy score by Ilan Eshkeri fills in a lot of the emotional gaps not already covered by Moore, and the editing by Nicolas Chaudeurge keeps you as off-balance as Alice. Chaudeurge blurs the line between actual reality and Alice's reality by cutting into scenes at just the right moment.
Most of the rest of the cast simply gets out of Moore's way and allows her to take the spotlight, save for one, who is a major issue for the film: Kate Bosworth. Though she's pretty as the day is long, she is nothing but miscast here. Clearly, she is not supposed to be the most likable of characters, but Bosworth plays her in the way that a carpenter swings a hammer. Every line reading either aggressively sneering or completely disingenuous. I couldn't tell whether her character was intentionally condescending to her mother, or if Bosworth is just incapable of true emotion. Many actresses are sidelined and treated as window dressing: Bosworth has put in her time in Superman Returns and 21 doing just that. It's too bad that I felt like she should just continue with that.
Despite all this film's faults, it is nevertheless still worth seeing for Moore's acting. Hell, I'd even re-watch The Lost World just to see her again.