Toying With Memories - The Use of Alzheimer's In Modern Day Cinema

The worrying issue being that it isn’t visible in an educational manner but rather as a source for some kind of heart-rending tap.

Recently there seems to be a trend emerging in Hollywood. The depiction of Alzheimer€™s disease is increasing on our screens. The worrying issue being that it isn€™t visible in an educational manner but rather as a source for some kind of heart-rending tap;
€˜Film seeming too upbeat? Need a quick emotional mood change, try Alzheimer€™s, the disease which can assure tears€™
This year has seen two comedies adopt this mantra, Friends with Benefits and 50/50. The consensus now being that comedies need to be funny whilst also maintaining a dramatic core to them, thus attracting two kinds of audiences. Unfortunately, gone are the days of Airplane and The Life of Brian. So now every comedy comes with a readymade moral attachment, and I€™m fine with that. However, when a disease such as Alzheimer€™s is brought into a picture as a mere footnote to get a contrasting reaction from the audience, questionable ethics come into play. The first film mentioned; a film which is easily confused with the Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman film No Strings Attached, starred Justin Timberlake (Dylan) and Mila Kunis (Jamie) as two friends who decide to maintain their friendship while duly going at it like bunny rabbits. But shock horror, emotions become involved and when Jamie goes to visit Dylan€™s family we discover that his father (the brilliant Richard Jenkins) is an Alzheimer€™s sufferer. I understand that Hollywood narratives demand a family which is far from ordinary, the 2 parents and a sister/brother scenario is rarely the case. It helps to add a new dimension to our protagonists; it is €˜character development 101€™ right out of a Syd Field book. Unfortunately in this case it just comes across as a needless character trait. Before we discover his father€™s ailment, Dylan has already made the decision to take the job at GQ move to New York from LA, thus on screen it had no bearing on his decision. And when we do meet his father, along with Jamie, for the first time, we are placed into a position of sympathy. We thus have to look at Dylan in a different way, we are forced into an emotional corner but what purpose does it serve? And this is where it all becomes a bit troublesome. With his father flying to New York to come and visit his son, Dylan has to meet him at the airport. On arriving Dylan manages to lose his father who has wandered off into a nearby restaurant, taken off his trousers and is reading the morning newspaper. Dylan looking slightly embarrassed sits down bearing the weight of all the stares. And when his father believes he saw a woman from his past walk past them, we are to assume that it is another bout of Alzheimer€™s memory loss. Instead in true Hollywood folly it turns into the perfect story of a onetime love that he left and has regretted ever since. Dylan takes this story to heart and realises his love for Jamie. Thus the Alzheimer€™s appears and disappears at Hollywood€™s will perfectly. It is a narrative ploy used to manipulate an audience, it causes us to feel sad and sympathetic and at the same time it is a device used to bring the story to a happy-ended conclusion. 50/50 on the other hand uses the disease purely to evoke emotions from the audience. 50/50 is not an outright comedy in any sense of the word; however comedy lies at its core, hence why the narrative is so unique €˜a cancer-comedy€™ so to speak. The real life story of the writer€™s (Will Reiser) diagnosis of cancer of the spine and his subsequent battle with it is probably far from funny, but many of the events of screen are based on reality. Particularly when you consider it was Seth Rogen in reality who was the friend who helped him through it as well as Joseph Gordon Levitt on screen. So if the film is based on true life events, obviously the term loosely is attached, why does Adam€™s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) father have Alzheimer€™s? In a recent interview Reiser stated that his father, unlike in the film, does not suffer from Alzheimer€™s. In the film his father is not a regular and pops up on occasions to forget his son and take some pills, the illness is a mere background with no purpose to the character that barely has a line. So when Adam goes in for his operation he shares an emotional moment with his father, embracing him and explaining that although he may not fully understand what is going on, he loves him. It is a sad moment, but would it not have been just as sad a moment if he was explaining it to a father without Alzheimer€™s, much like Reiser who must have had a similar moment with his own father. It seems that the disease is used to manipulate every single drop of sadness out of the audience. What makes it seem even worse is the casting, the brilliant Angelica Huston takes on the role of his mother whilst the father is played by Serge Houde an unrecognisable name I€™m sure. He is of no importance to the narrative and yet because we are made aware of his illness early on he shares the most tender heart wrenching scene. Hollywood has used Alzheimer€™s before, it is not new to the filmic realm, but it seems to be a recent trend which can be picked up and dropped whenever it feels like it. Films such as The Notebook, a film which I can wholeheartedly say I enjoyed (you can deny it all you want) has it at its core. Yes, it uses it for a reveal at the end, but it makes the purpose of the whole story come together. Another film which deals with the disease in the right manner is Sarah Polley€™s Away From Her. Away from the restraints of Hollywood, she delivered a film which rightfully displays and educates about Alzheimer€™s. The problem isn€™t that it is present in Hollywood but how it is being represented. In my own opinion the idea of losing one€™s memories is heartbreaking, there are memories you never want to forget and to have them taken away from you is awful. Hollywood needs to educate its audience; instead it manipulates the disease around the narrative. Memories are precious and Hollywood has a role to play in portraying them ethically, basically it needs to stop toying with them and take them seriously.

Dan Lewis is a writer, reader and lover of all things cultural, whether that be Film, Television, Music or Photography. His idol is Louie CK. His favorite Animated TV show is Archer. And if he was a Wire character he'd be Nicky Sobotka.