Sunday, February 22, 2015

Still Alice

For a weepy about Alzheimer's disease Still Alice is uncommonly orderly and efficient. Every scene starts clearly, gets straight to the point and then cuts to the next - much like it would in a well made thriller. In the film's early stages this strategy works well as in some sense the film is a thriller. Alzheimer's is more or less a monster stalking Alice. Every time she begins to speak or goes out on her own the disease is lurking, ready to cause her a sudden moment of discomfort or anxiety. There's a particularly strong scene in which Alice is shakily drinking a glass of water while her husband walks out the door in the distance. For a reason I can't quite articulate the scene is surprisingly suspenseful despite the fact that the worst that could happen is that she might drop the glass. She doesn't though and the film moves swiftly on.

Unfortunately towards its latter stages the film begins to feel too precise and clinical even as Alice herself is able to muster less and less order in her daily life. It's not that the film ignores the ruptures that Alzheimer's tears in Alice and her family's life - far from it - it's that it quickly moves passed them and on to the next, hitting each beat but never leaving them time to linger.

Aside from the problems with the film's overall strategy there are a few individual scenes which don't work for entirely different reasons. Many people have singled out the speech to the Alzheimer's support group and I think they're right to do so. The overall conception of the scene is strong. It's a moment in which Alice is able to reclaim her identity as a distinguished expert and public speaker. However it's played far too traditionally. There's far too much emphasis on her words as a thesis statement and the scene's arc, in which Alice successfully overcomes an early fumble to win over the audience and assert her identity, is stultifyingly conventional.

Equally frustrating is the film's use of product placement. The film opts for the strategy of actively integrating the product being pushed into the storyline. I'm sure that the real Alice had favorite branded hangout spots but the repeated use of the company's full name and it's positive association for Alice means that as a viewer all I could hear were the brand experts selling the film to advertisers as an sophisticated entertainment targeted at upscale auds. Product placement may be a necessary evil but there's no reason to make it an excessively obnoxious one.

This all might sound a excessively negative so I should emphasis that Still Alice is by no means a bad film. It does contain moments of unexpected subtly and grace.* However Still Alice feels like a film that is holding itself back lest it be judged as being too manipulative or indulgent, as a result it's at war with itself.

*I do wish it had held back on the butterfly though, as contradictory as that seems.

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