|Julianne Moore as Alice in "Still Alice"|
The Oscar front-runner — who’s demonstrated her virtuosity for years in films as varied as “Boogie Nights’’ and “Far From Heaven” — gets to the very soul of the brainy Alice, who receives the rare and shocking diagnosis at age 50 after she forgets the word “lexicon’’ during a speech.
This drops like a bomb on her workaholic husband (Alec Baldwin), who, like Alice, is on the faculty at Columbia University. Her three adult children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) learn they each have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the condition — and could in turn pass it on to their children.
But this superb adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel mostly focuses on Alice’s fight against mental deterioration, which she meticulously charts in various ways, including Words With Friends.
Her scores on that game app plummet, and she loses her teaching job as the increasing difficulty she has concentrating forces her to tell her boss about her illness.
By this point, Alice has already planned a secret exit strategy to spare her family and herself the ultimate agony of losing her once-brilliant mind altogether: She’s recorded an iBook video detailing step-by-step suicide instructions to follow once she dips below a certain cognitive threshold.
Married writer-directors Richard Glatzer (who is afflicted with ALS) and Wash Westmoreland (“The Last of Robin Hood”) rigorously avoid schmaltz while providing the kinds of devastating scenes that clinch Best Actress Oscars.
Baldwin, who played the husband to last year’s Oscar winner, Cate Blanchett, in “Blue Jasmine,” is very good as Alice’s husband, who initially refuses to believe the diagnosis — and is later torn between her plea for him to take a year’s sabbatical and a chance at a coveted job.
Stewart is even better as Alice’s youngest child, an aspiring actress. The two have had a difficult relationship, yet she alone has the emotional depth and strength to be there for her mother in the end.
But it’s the lead actress’ subtle gestures and line readings — call it “the less is Moore” approach — that makes for a tour de force performance.
“Still Alice” may be set in the relatively privileged world of upper-tier academia, but it presents a disease that can devastate any family, anywhere, with unsparing truth and great compassion.
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Julianne Moore unforgettable with Alzheimer’s in ‘Still Alice’