Still Alice is the kind of movie that exists solely to facilitate a great performance in the lead role, and Julianne Moore provides one. So that's, like, a good thing. And that Oscar she has not received yet for playing the role as I write these words, but surely will in a few weeks time - it shall be an earned Oscar. It's not my favorite performance of the year. It's certainly not my favorite Moore performance of all time. But she's right fucking good, and there's simply no way to deny or diminish that fact.

This is good for everybody: for Moore, who finally gets to have all the award recognition she should have received several times over (yes, boilerplate about Oscars are dumb and all that, but I still have to assume she's feeling good right now, and a world where Julianne Moore feels good is the kind I want to live in); for us, who get the treat of a corker of a headlining performance from one of the best actors working right now, and who hasn't had the unshared lead role in a movie since all the way back in 2008, with the dubious Blindness. Most of all, it's good for writer-director duo Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland, whose fourth feature together completely depends on having an absolute dynamo in the center if the film is going to seem like any kind of halfway decent work of art whatsoever. And make no mistake, even with Moore tearing it up, down, and sideways, "halfway decent" is still the best that Still Alice can scrounge up for itself.

The Alice Howland who is still herself is an international celebrated cognitive linguistics professor, who finds herself becoming unusually absent-minded, early in her 50s. When, finally, she decides to bother with a doctor, the news is the worst possible: she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a particularly rare strain with a genetic component. So not only does Alice herself have to deal with the corrosive effects of the disease, any or all of her three adult children - Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), or Lydia (Kristen Stewart) - could follow her path. This cheery possibility casts an ugly pall over an already terrifying situation, as the children, and Alice’s wonderfully supportive but quite helpless husband John (Alec Baldwin) stand at an uncomfortable distance, watching as Alice slowly vanishes.

So that’s the whole plot. And it contains within it the biggest of Still Alice’s liabilities, which is that the film has no real idea of what or who to focus on. The last high-profile Alzheimer’s family drama, Away from Her is ultimately about the sufferer’s husband, who can’t square the physical and emotional presence of his wife with the absence of all the experiences and knowledge that made her identity. Still Alice, in contrast, is entirely about Alice: the family is strictly there to give context and shape to her story. There are lines and even whole scenes that clue us in to how they feel about what’s happening, but at no point is that what the film is about. In principle, this is a very worthy approach to take, but the great limitation is that the film is simply too stolid and milquetoast in its approach to actually get inside Alice’s head and fading memories. Crudely put, the best version of Still Alice needs to have a kind of Alzheimer’s itself, presenting the sense of dislocation and untethered now-ness of a person losing all her old memories and unable to form new ones. That’s not what happens here at all. The camera is always locked on Alice, and it strictly limits itself to what she perceives, but it never, ever adopts her internal POV; we’re watching Alice intently, but we simply do not know what she experiences. Since this broadly describes the experience of watching a loved one declining from Alzheimer’s, that kind of unknowable objectivity works in something like Away from Her, where the mindset of the person watching is the focus. With Still Alice, we instead find ourselves confronted with an exquisitely worked-out and luminously acted piece of disease porn.

This is even more of a pity than it seems, because studded throughout Glatzer & Westmoreland’s screenplay, adapting Lisa Genova’s novel, there are clear-headed, stirring ideas about these characters and their world that could be turned into something really special if the film wanted to grapple with them instead of just include them as plot points in its litany of the Horrors of Alzheimer’s. Its depiction of the way that people of a very certain economic and educational background cope with sickness, denying it, trying to outthink, feeling awfully confused why something so capriciously awful could happen to people who’ve so consciously made all the right choices, could easily have a bit more sting if the movie was, itself, any more aware that its characters existed in that rarefied class. Making Alice a professor of the way that the brain processes and stores information is rather glibly on-the-nose, but it opens up a tragic dimension of the way that people who live entirely inside their own head react when their head is suddenly revealed as a dangerous battleground (at one point, the idea is floated that the very well-educated can be harder to diagnose, since they have an arsenal of intellectual tricks to subconsciously outflank the early symptoms - the film could do with more stopovers in that territory). Once the rest of the cast has generally sunk into the background, and the film can focus on Alice’s relationship with her youngest and black-sleepiest child, Lydia, it gets into some rather sharp, insightful territory about how family tragedies can be used, and even usurped, in the process of airing out and overcoming old grievances, and the ways that some bonds are tried by suffering while others are intensified and strengthened. That Stewart, perhaps unexpectedly, gives the film’s clear second-best performance only makes this all the stronger; it also makes it all the more annoying that the film dithers through an hour where the family drama is just kind of sitting there, flatly and obviously, like an animal carcass on the highway. But, like, a really handsomely middlebrow animal carcass.

So, all in all, there’s a much stronger movie right inside the kind of dodgy, thematically directionless one we get. It’s impressive but oh-so-limited, and the filmmaking limits it even more: a tremendously bland visual style married to a hectoring, bossy score by Ilan Eshkeri, which overstresses all the darker moments and makes the thing feel like there’s a campy Still Alice looking for a way out, just like there’s a more serious, thoughtful engagement with the emotional and psychological effects of Alzeimer’s and not just the symptomology of it. I certainly would have preferred the second of these theoretically possible Still Alices to the first, but either one of them would have been a great deal more lively and memorable than what does really amount to watching an enormously talented woman march through a checklist of increasingly haunting, depressing developments, while around her, the supporting cast can barely keep themselves from applauding her effort and gratefully allow themselves to serve as props for her to react to and measure herself against. But Moore is really quite terrific, and through sheer presence and unerring focus, she manages to manhandle Still Alice into having things to say about the physical and familial conditions it depicts, even if frankly doesn’t want to.