Review: The Age of Adaline

ageofadalineThere’s an endearing scene midway through The Age of Adaline, the new time-hopping romantic drama starring Blake Lively, in which two lovers swoon in the back of a 1930s convertible at an abandoned movie theater, marveling at the constellation of phosphorescent stars scattered across the cavernous art deco ceiling above them. It’s an evocative moment, and a litmus test to how an audience might react to the film: like those glow-in-the-dark stars in our childhood bedrooms of yore, Adaline is patently, proudly artificial, unabashedly corny and—recalling those tragic teen nights one might spend fixated on a phony galaxy—just that little bit moving. It’s a sentimental picture wrapped in a vaguely science fiction outer, old fashioned and earnest in a good way—the kind of film you’d take your kid sister to see (one of cinema’s highest recommendations, by the way.)

Channeling Nicholas Sparks if he’d taken a class in Ray Bradbury (and told via a narrator who may as well be Rod Serling), Adaline relates the fable of the eponymous Ms. Bowman (Lively): born 1908, clinically dead in a car crash by 1937, and resuscitated, via a serendipitous bolt of lightning, to a fantastic life eternal of being forever 29. (It’s the movie wish fulfillment of every thirtysomething’s “29 again!” birthday fraud.) In a shimmering present day San Francisco, Adaline remains unchanged in her youthful appearance, while everyone around her has aged or passed away. Realizing she’s a freak, she’s been forced into the life of an identity-changing fugitive, lest someone discovers her big secret and sends her off to a lab for study (or Lancôme presumably has her snuffed out.) Adaline is thus built on a distinctly cinematic fabrication more magic than realist, though the abstract prettiness of its world belies a recognizable sadness.

And so the film’s dilemma comes into focus: Adaline is always on the run, unable to love (sniff!), consigned to a life of watching those around her wither and die under the tyranny of time—if there’s a sadder scene in all of recent cinema than Lively committing a photo of yet another deceased pet to her decades-old scrapbook, I haven’t seen it (sorry, Benjamin Button.) Still, you can’t say that being an eternal 29-year-old born at the turn of the 20th century isn’t without its benefits. For one, Adaline’s fashion locus is the mid-1930s, which means she’s always impeccably styled; Lively’s costume design (by Moulin Rouge!’s Angus Strathie) is a perfect fusion of the classic and the contemporary, and her wavy, windswept movie-star hair is a Golden Age of Hollywood marvel. Adaline also possesses the curatorial instincts of Jim Jarmusch’s vampires (correctly admonishing the horrors of chill-out jazz at one point) and the trivial inventory of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. But woe, to love… to really love!

What the late Alain Resnais might have done with this material in his heyday. Skipping across decades as it furnishes Adaline’s lonely trajectory, Lee Toland Krieger’s film, rather elegantly directed from a script by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz, promises to push beyond its character’s romantic quandary to invite thoughts on the notion of cinema as a conflation of time and space. With Adaline as both cipher and constant, the film darts back and forth across eras with a sense of the uncanny; faces and incidents recur in slightly altered form, recalling—theoretically, at least—the unreliable memory of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and the more explicit time-cutting of his indelible Je’taime, Je’taime. That Adaline doesn’t ultimately commit to this approach is disappointing, though hardly unexpected—it’s a mainstream American movie released in 2015, after all—and the fact there are traces of such DNA imbues it with an element of fascination. It may not be mind-bending, but it’s curious and intellectually playful. A less lofty, though no less charitable comparison might be made with the time-travel romance Somewhere in Time, while Adaline’s sturdy cross-cutting evokes Stanley Donen’s relationship puzzle Two for the Road; there’s even a scene here, surely no coincidence, set around 1967, with Lively driving a black convertible and meeting cute with a young man stranded on the English countryside.

If that’s a closer reading of Adaline than it perhaps warrants, then credit the movie for casting such a warm spell that it invites further appreciation. Yet for all its talk of electromagnetic reanimation, astronomical exploration and time-space tinkering, Adaline is ultimately purposed with providing the majority non-weirdoes in the audience with what they’ll show up for: the banalities of a good old-fashioned romance. In that respect the movie is far less impressive, though at least it commits to its uncool instincts and sees them properly through. There’s no ironic winking, no cheap pop culture riffing, just a shamelessly determined story of love versus the cruel hand of time. And given its unusual science-fiction premise, Adaline’s wholehearted embrace of heartstring-tugging romance between pretty automatons might be read as a simulacrum of love; but that’s a matter for another discussion.

Toland Krieger’s direction is neater here than his engagingly messy Celeste and Jesse Forever, but there are touches of that film’s buoyancy—and its wrangling with the vagaries of romance—that color Adaline’s quieter conversational moments. Though she’s sometimes criticized for her range, Lively makes for a ideal canvas upon which the film can paint—her classical face and wide, open eyes, turned down ever-so at the corners, convey both youthful verve and the weariness of an old soul—and the camera extracts a performance that’s neatly in sync with the movie’s heightened sense of unreality. She’s essentially the vessel by which the film can move, per traditional time-travel theory; less animated, perhaps, than a phone booth or a Delorean, but with indisputably more ravishing hair. Lively has a nice enough rapport with Games of Thrones hunk Michiel Huisman, and her scenes with Ellen Burstyn, as Adaline’s now-elderly daughter, have an effortless emotional pull.

Yet the movie’s dramatic ace—and surprisingly so—is Harrison Ford. An unlikely recruit for a supporting role that functions as the dramatic pivot for the film, Ford’s gently comic performance sees him summon forth a these-days rarely seen charm, drawing on a lifetime’s experience to play a man from Adaline’s past who… well, why spoil the obvious. Inhabiting the younger Ford, meanwhile, Anthony Ingruber—noted for his YouTube impressions of Han Solo—offers up the movie’s single most delightful turn. Smirking with all the irrepressible cockiness of vintage Ford, it’s the most affectionate impersonation of the star since River Phoenix, and an almost eerie moment in the film’s compression of time.

So Adaline twists and turns, even as it’s easy to spot the predictable sunset it’s heading toward. It says a lot for the refreshingly out-of-fashion sincerity of the film that it never second-guesses its ridiculous premise, successfully framing the narrative as a fairy tale best not scrutinized with cynical eyes. Like the comet to which it likens its heroine’s travails, The Age of Adaline is a “near miss,” content to occasionally flirt with the sublime rather than step wholly into the uneasy. This is Hollywood, and ambiguous endings that reinforce the essential nothingness of existence don’t sell tickets. Besides, sometimes gazing up at a chintzy sky full of plastic stars can be just as enjoyable.

Published at Movie Mezzanine