In 'Still Alice,' Hollywood dwells on the sad mortality of the well-to-do … again

Still Alice | B

Apparently, only rich people get sick. Or, at least, sick in a way that warrants attention from Hollywood. Tales of heart-wrenching struggles with disease are as old as the film industry itself, a tried and true formula for Oscar nominations and Kleenex sales. But over the last couple of decades, the cinematic focus on those who suffer has tended to land on our upper crust. It’s a convenient way to dodge the crippling financial implications most Americans face when struck by life-threatening illnesses and instead tug cleanly at the audience’s heartstrings.

Still Alice suffers from this same culturally tone-deaf approach as it chronicles the inarguably sad mental decline of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), an internationally celebrated cognitive linguistics professor (get the irony?) who has been struck with the early onset of hereditary Alzheimer’s disease. While directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who co-wrote the script with Lisa Genova, the author of the source novel) do a good job of keeping cheap sentiment at bay as they compassionately chart the way the disease gradually pulls apart Alice’s identity, it’s hard not to notice the opulence of her life. She has model-gorgeous children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish), a handsome doctor husband (Alec Baldwin), and the kind of glamorous lifestyle (a Manhattan townhouse, a beach house in the Hamptons) few can afford.

Yes, the heartbreaking realities of Alice’s affliction are sincerely portrayed (especially in Moore’s gifted hands), with careful attention paid to the realities of her cognitive deterioration. But there’s very little of Alice’s core personality for we of the 99 percent to identify with. Subtracting the economic and logistical hardships that so many middle-class families face when dealing with Alzheimer’s, the Howlands are a privileged and pretentious bunch, mostly dealing with contrived family melodramas to fill the in-between spaces.

To wit, Alice doesn’t just have Alzheimer’s; her VIP status brings with it the rare, high-risk hereditary version, which means that daughter Anna (Bosworth) must now reconsider the fertility treatments she’s begun, lest she perpetuate the family’s biological curse. Her situation is further exacerbated by petty spats with black sheep sister Lydia (Stewart), whose efforts to become an L.A. actress and stay away from bad boyfriends have equally failed. Meanwhile, Alice’s arrogant hubby is being recruited by the Mayo Clinic for a dream job, which will mean further displacement for his suffering wife. Ah, the everyday travails of wealthy white people. Can’t you just feel their pain?

Which isn’t to say that illnesses like Alzheimer’s and cancer aren’t the great equalizer. The emotional turmoil of the Howland family is, at times, very moving. Glatzer and Westmoreland give the characters real dignity as they deal with the corrosive effects of this terrible disease. But as witnesses to Alice’s struggles they mostly provide context and shape rather than meaningful insight, reaction, or reflection.

Instead, the film stolidly locks its gaze on Alice herself, charting what she perceives of her decline — though never having the artistry to offer an internal POV (the filmmaking is strictly cable television bland). Unlike, say, Sarah Polley’s wonderfully compassionate Away From Her, which focused on a husband’s struggle to reconcile his wife’s vanishing identity, Still Alice is thematically empty and almost voyeuristic (Ilan Eshkeri’s strident score doesn’t help), delivering obvious plot points rather than sharp, resonant drama.

This is a case of could-have-been rather than should-have-been. A better film would have reconsidered the rarefied wealth of its protagonist or, at least, addressed the way people of that particular educational and economic status cope with the fact that all their privilege, cleverness, and entitlement are humbled by the realities of disease. It’s exactly those revelations that made last year’s documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me — which chronicled the famed singer’s decline — so vividly impactful.

What ultimately makes Still Alice noteworthy is Moore’s exquisitely nuanced performance. Vulnerable yet determined, she gives Alice the hard-fought, human-sized courage to look in the mirror and watch herself disappear. It’s a gut-wrenching portrait that is well served by the actress’ alert intelligence and deep empathy, making her the clear front-runner for this year’s Best Actress Oscar — and the only thing worth remembering about this otherwise middle-of-the-road weepie.

Still Alice is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 108 minutes. Now playing.