Julianne Moore is probably the best cinematic crier in the business. None of her films are truly complete until she scrunches up her face and lets loose with an unself-conscious bawl. She's a great actress, but there's something about those tears—is it catharsis?—that audiences seem to find particularly satisfying. The patented Julianne Moore crying scene comes fairly early in Still Alice, when her character, a well-to-do (and mildly pompous) professor of linguistics, is informed she very likely has early onset Alzheimer's disease.
You've never seen a Moore breakdown like this one, full of ugly, gagging sobs. It's frankly a little shocking after all those years of weeping on command to see Moore dig this deep and discover a whole new way to cry. The stakes feel higher; this woman was just told her prize possession—her mind—was being stolen from her, piece by piece, and that there was nothing she could do to stop it from happening. What else is there to do but cry?
Moore does exquisite work in Still Alice, which documents the de-evolution of Alice's personhood over the span of about a year or so. First she forgets names. Then she gets lost while jogging. And eventually she's forgetting the names of loved ones and feeling great chunks of herself slough off her brain into nothingness. You could spend the entire film just watching the keen light in Moore's eyes slowly die away, to the exclusion of everything else.
The rest of Still Alice's ensemble can't approach Moore's masterful performance, so they quietly support it instead. The weakest link in the cast, Alec Baldwin, plays the same self-satisfied upper-class doofus he always plays in dramas, without much of an impact at all. (This time, he's supposed to be a doctor.) But Kristen Stewart, as Alice's prodigal daughter, shakes off the Twilight malaise and returns to the intensity she demonstrated in early films like Adventureland and The Runaways. It's a welcome reclamation by an interesting actor who had recently fallen into some bad habits.
Unfortunately, Still Alice's direction and script can't quite live up to Moore's high standards, either. The film's look is best described as pedestrian, and some clichéd visual tricks, with the camera's focus representing Alice's mental fuzziness, fall flat. Still Alice is extremely lopsided toward Moore; her performance is everything. It's so sharp, in fact, that it makes all the dullness behind the camera even more noticeable.