Dr. Alice Howland (Moore) is a renowned professor of linguistics at Columbia University, mother to three adult children, and wife to Dr. John Howland (Baldwin), a prominent physician. As she begins having lapses in memory, she undergoes testing and learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. She then struggles to cope with her failing memory, which begins to exert a strain on her family.
Moore's performance, the most commonly cited aspect of the film's critical acclaim, won her the Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Actress.
This film contains examples of:
- Artistic License Biology: Alice's Alzheimer's progresses much more rapidly than happens in reality, even in its early-onset form. When she experiences her first very minor symptoms, her daughter is visibly pregnant, by the time her daughter gives birth, Alice can barely speak and is incapable of taking basic care of herself.
- Bittersweet Ending: Alice's condition is irreversible and she's now almost unable to speak, but Alice and Lydia do share possibly one of their last meaningful moments together and Alice's final word in the movie is 'love'. Under the circumstances it's about as happy as you could possibly hope for.
- But Now I Must Go: At the end of the film, John leaves for a lucrative job offer at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in order to secure financial security for himself and Alice. However, he does have plans to move Alice to Minnesota with him.
- Caretaker Reversal: Alice's youngest daughter ends up taking care of her in the end.
- Despair Event Horizon: Alice eventually falls over this as her memory fails, breaking down as she informs John and even setting a plan for her future self to commit suicide when enough of her memory is lost.
- Do Not Go Gentle: This is the message of Alice's speech at the Alzheimer's Society.
- Driven to Suicide: Subverted. Alice sets up a plan to make sure she commits suicide when her Alzheimer's becomes so progressed she cannot remember even basic questions like where she lives. She stashes a pill bottle in the back of her drawer, and leaves a reminder on her phone that directs her to a video she pre-recorded with instructions on how to overdose. It fails.
- Fauxshadowing: The film invests considerable time in setting us up for Alice to kill herself once the disease has progressed beyond a certain point. However, her attempt fails when she spills the pills on the floor and can't remember what they're for.
- Fiery Redhead: Alice is a redhead and very outspoken. She begins to lose that as the disease progresses, but still has some moments, such as when Lydia suggests some alterations to her speech, given that it took her a very long time to write it with her accelerating condition.
- Fling a Light into the Future: Soon after her diagnosis, Alice records a video allowing her to find a bottle of pills to take once she's advanced too far. She ends up not taking it.
- The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Anna and Lydia clash constantly in how to handle Alice's disease, sometimes becoming openly hostile.
- Glory Days: A tragic example. Near the end, Alice and John are eating ice-cream near Columbia University. The disease is noticeably progressed, but Alice recalls someone tell her she used to teach there and says, "I used to be smart."
- Happily Married: John and Alice, the former of whom does everything he can to support his increasingly frail wife.
- I Have This Friend: Alice visits an elderly care facility not long after she's first diagnosed, completely believably saying that she's looking on behalf of a parent.
- I'm Standing Right Here: Part of Alice's increasing alienation includes her family suddenly (from her perspective, it actually takes quite a bit of time) treating her as if her opinions no longer matter, and they begin to talk about her instead of at her.
- Interrupted Suicide: Near the end of the film, Alice tries to swallow an entire bottle of pills. However, the sudden arrival of her caretaker causes her to drop the pills all over the floor.
- In the Blood: Alice's type of Alzheimer's disease is hereditary.
- Manly Tears: John feels he's failed Alice by leaving Lydia to look after her while he moves cities for work, and can't stop himself from weeping as she reassures him that she can take care of Alice.
- OOC Is Serious Business: How Alice begins to realize that something is wrong with her. In the middle of a speech, she tries to find the right word for what she's describing, and takes several moments before settling on "word stock." Only on the ride home does she realize the word she was reaching for at the time: "lexicon."
- Potty Failure: In one scene, Alice wets her pants because she can no longer remember where the bathroom is in her own home.
- Precision F-Strike: An extremely sad example when Alice first tells John about seeing a neurologist and her initial fears."I know what I'm feeling. I know what it's feeling, and it feels like my brain is fucking dying."
- Product Placement: Apple, Pinkberry, and Words with Friends get extensive screentime. It's especially noticeable in the scene where Alice eats at Pinkberry the first time, as the bowl is turned so as to perfectly display the logo to the camera.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Alice's intelligence is shown by what words she uses playing Words with Friends with her daughter, like "document" and "hadji." Part of her daily memory self-tests also involve her trying to remember long words. Justified because she is a linguistics professor. It also shows the progress of her condition when she puts down "tone" for 5 points despite having decent letters. Eventually, her daughter stops playing with her.
- Scatterbrained Senior: The movie is about Alzheimer's. In Alice's case, it was well before actual senior age, sadly. She is a very good-looking middle-aged woman but gets lost when she goes outside and later can't remember where the bathroom is in her own house.
- Suicide Is Shameful: A big part of the plot is Alice both bargaining with "how far" she can allow herself to go before she should rather kill herself and how big of a taboo suicide is. Ultimately she ends up in a vegetative state and one of her last conscious decisions is a failed suicide attempt, which she had always contemplated but repeatedly put off while she was lucid..
- Time Skip: There's a time-skip between a scene where Alice panics having lost her phone because of the importance of her self-made memory test and the phone being found one month later, although Alice only remembers looking for it the night before.