The Age of Adaline is based on the improbable premise that a casting director would expect Blake Lively to play a character wise beyond her years. With a limited film resume mostly spent playing arm candy in dude-driven action flicks, pitching The Age of Adaline makes Lively’s starring dramatic presence a tougher sell than the film’s own romantic fable story. But The Age of Adaline is a smarter beast than its gooey exterior lets on, and its precise use of performers, genre tropes, and aesthetics makes it a pleasantly surprising blend of old and new school fairy tale.
Making no bones about its melodramatic intentions, The Age of Adaline operates with restrained but omnipresent emotionality at all times. For a film that’s really more of a character study than a sweeping epic, The Age of Adaline’s biggest, constant risk is assuming the audience will go along with its somberly operatic tone, instead of laughing it out of the theatre. Put another way: it takes confidence to introduce your protagonist as someone so special, they’re worth singling out from an opening shot of the entire freaking planet.
Director Lee Toland Krieger throws you into the film’s deep well of poetic sentiment from minute one, where every opportunity for dramatic and temporal irony is played with the utmost earnestness. A Marlboro-smooth narrator sets the stage as San Francisco, the time being December 31st, 2014. This marks not only the end of another year, but also the day before the 107th birthday of Jessica Laurence, nee Adaline Beauman, a born-and-raised San Franciscan who doesn’t look a day over 29.
The confluence of time and space-related coincidences in Adaline’s life (she works with the historical society and was married to an engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge) would be more eyeroll-worthy if The Age of Adaline wasn’t so unblinkingly committed to you taking it seriously. Where this backfires is in the over-explanation of Adaline’s supernatural condition, which involves a freak car, drowning, and lighting bolt accident that renders her body immune to effects of aging. The more the script throws around talk of telomere functionality and genetic principles to try and couch the story in some basis of reality, the more unnecessarily questionable its central premise becomes. Sometimes, “a wizard did it” is all one really needs to go along with things.
Early flashbacks show Adaline as she grapples with her sustained appearance from the ‘30s onward, her suspended looks becoming more suspicious the older she’s supposed to be. The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons makes for the most obvious comparison point, but Adaline ditches the Gump-ian chronological storytelling of Buttons for a mostly modern day story. Once we get the background gist of Adaline’s life since the incident, one where identity changes are frequent and attachments are limited, the action mainly occurs in the present day, where the handsome self-made millionaire Ellis (Michiel Huisman) attempts to woo the beguiling “Jessica.”
If anything, the more Fincher-ian film Age of Adaline seems inspired by is Zodiac, as the San Francisco Bay Area plays as big a role as either lead (just in a far more inviting light). The shallow beginnings of Adaline and Ellis’ relationship (she’s hot and mysterious, he’s gorgeous and rich) give way to a rather charming pairing between people as obsessed with local history as they are stereotypical faux naturel bourgeoisie living. It’s a brand of lifestyle porn seemingly sponsored by the San Francisco board of tourism, but it’s hard not to be drawn in by the soft, rich texture of David Lanzenberg’s cinematography.
For the first two thirds of its run, The Age of Adaline gradually wins you over as its strong sense of character interactions and visual design weds the fable-like elements to a slow burn romance picture. The screenplay not only makes Adaline an engaging, active protagonist, but Lively proves ideal for the role, her disaffected line readings being exactly what the film calls for out of a character resisting the urge to connect. The languorous pace gives time for a potentially gimmicky premise to have a little fun with obvious disconnects (82-year-old Ellen Burstyn plays Adaline’s daughter), but doesn’t sacrifice the emotional believability of its characters in the name of plot.
That is, until the last act. A revelation involving a character played by Harrison Ford has the potential to elevate the film even further, but winds up sabotaging it on the way to a hokey ending. In brief moments, The Age of Adaline plays like a Nicholas Sparks-ian take of last year’s Only Lovers Left Alive (in part because it rips one of its best scenes right out of Jarmusch’s film), using a supernatural premise to explore relatable fears of aging, just in a more openly swoon-worthy manner. Scheduling means the film is going to be buried by another Age of title next week, but the fleeting relevance of The Age of Adaline doesn’t diminish the efforts by all involved to deliver something more than meets the eye.
With a steady head on its shoulders and a look as well-crafted as its lead's, The Age of Adaline is often hard to swallow but harder to dislike.