Movie: Age of Adaline
Directed by: Lee Toland Cooper
Starring: Blake Lively, Harrison Ford, Michiel Huisman
Director Lee Toland Cooper delivers an epic romance with Age of Adaline, enlivening an often overwrought archetype with dazzling performances by Blake Lively and Harrison Ford and a good dose of heart, and in the process just barely rising above an overindulgence in romantic cliches and a barrage of implausible coincidences.
I came into Age of Adaline not really knowing what to expect. I knew very little about the movie right up to the premiere, and even less about its leading lady, Blake Lively. Still, the intriguing premise promised, I thought, some similarity to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and other films of that type, so I was willing to give it a shot. I’m glad I did, for despite some surprising shifts in focus and a few horrible choices in storytelling, Age of Adaline proved quite capable of breathing fresh life, and more than a little warmth, into a tired old genre. Advertised as a romantic drama with a fantasy twist, it chronicles the cross generational journey of Adaline Bowman, a normal woman in San Francisco who had been rendered ageless in the 1930s by a freak and horribly implausible incident involving a car accident, near-frozen water, and a defibrillating bolt of lightning. Going into any further detail - and the film’s pseudo scientific hand wave of how it happened - would surely make your head explode at the sheer nonsense of it all, but that doesn’t matter. The filmmakers aren’t going for a science fiction thriller, but rather a slow, patient exploration of still life, in which Adaline, forever forced to move around due to her “condition,” reconsiders after catching the eye of Ellis Jones (Huisman), a young and scarily persistent philanthropist determined to win her heart. While on the surface seemingly another romance with a lame gimmick and a foundation built on sand, it works once you get past the strangeness of the scenario and truly immerse yourself in the meat of the story .
That said, the first road block to said immersion pops up right at the start, for even before the opening sequence we are treated to a virtual fountain of information diarrhea from an unknown and unseen narrator. This wasn’t a major irritant at first; though I generally frown upon exposition on principle unless it’s somehow built into the story, the very beginning at least kept its focus of our lovely lead where it belonged, following her mysterious trek through downtown San Francisco, and only occasionally interrupted by the prattling of our off-center commentator. The atmosphere builds to a muted, almost sad crescendo, and I’m left wondering how the tension would break. This all changes, though, once we reach Adaline’s library, when the narration vomits up a full exposition of Adeline’s life, up to and including delivering the weak, quasi-fantastic explanation for how she came to be. As far as the art of story-crafting is concerned, this isn’t just a cardinal sin - it’s a card for eternal damnation, one likely to earn you a cold seat in Satan’s bloated rear-end. Show, Don’t Tell, is (or should be) the holy mantra of any writer, in any medium, around the world, and for good reason; with precious few exceptions, the inclusion of a Mr(s). Exposition never contributes much beyond a break in immersion and a loss in tempo. You could argue, I suppose, that the limitations of time and the construction of the plot demanded some exposition, but not a full ten minute’s worth, and certainly not when there’s no clear link between the expositor and the story. Indeed, the info dump seemed completely utilitarian, carrying no purpose other than to bring the moviegoer “up to speed” on Adaline’s life, and then clearing out for a huge stretch of the film in order to make way for the actual story. This kind of thing alone can break a movie experience for me, as I subsequently spent a significant portion of my time stewing in irritation at what I'd just been put through, and the failure of the movie to provide it with context.
Fortunately, this rather shoddy choice on the part of the filmmakers wasn’t enough to completely turn me off, and Blake Lively’s shimmering performance more than made up for the major headaches at the start. Once freed from the confines of enclosed library room for the term of her exposition, Lively sweeps us along with her convincing portrayal of a world-weary immortal - a woman at once classy and magnetic, yet withdrawn from her surroundings and isolated from the people whom she knows she will outlive. Some, to be sure, might see her as muted, even emotionless; I disagree - in fact, I consider Adaline to be a rather accurate portrayal of a normal person’s confrontation with agelessness. Adaline isn’t an immortal android, nor an impassive guardian over the currents of time; she is, right down to it, a normal woman, with a grown, elderly daughter - played by a delightfully crisp and spirited Ellen Burstyn - and no greater eccentricities than a justified knack for trivia and an eye for detail born of experience. While the tortuous exposition does give a nob to the obligatory “government men” pursuing Adaline for what we can only guess were nefarious purposes, the film thankfully does not dwell on this, setting The Age of Adaline apart from the other films in this unique genre. More than anything, Blake Lively gives Adaline a touch of sadness which radiates throughout the rest of the movie, lending real emotional torque in a genre so often obsessed with the more cerebral ramifications of eternal life, and she pulls it off commandingly.
Besides Lively and her reserved yet powerful performance, the rest of the cast also take their fair share of the accolades (and blame) for the film’s power. I hate to admit that Michiel Huisman did very little in his role as Adaline’s love interest; as a character he is the most shallow and conventional of the lot, and frankly, his behavior - constantly following Adaline, “randomly” running into her home since “she won’t return his calls” - would likely lead to a restraining order in real life, or any other context for that matter. He lives solely as a means to spur Adaline’s out of her 70-year emotional lethargy, and while he serves admirably to that end, I’ve never been fond of characters being used as props for a screenwriter’s idea. Far more interesting is Harrison Ford as Ellis’ father, a thoughtful yet hard-nosed man with a connection to Adaline’s past. It was pure joy to see Ford in such a melancholy and contemplative role, adding to the film’s snug atmosphere and playing counterpoint to Adaline regarding the struggle to move on in life. I won’t divulge the details of his link to her (FYI: you’ll probably see it coming a mile away) but suffice it to say that Ford’s soulful portrayal of a man who, while not clinging to an unattainable past and appreciative of his present, still wonders “what might have been,” is a believable and pleasant contrast to both Lively's willful detachment and Huisman’s stock characterization.
Unfortunately, the movie’s pacing, which up to this point had been painless and rather well-oiled, begins to lag as the sad and heartfelt examination of a life unlived and the redemptive power of love decays into tacky melodrama that nearly implodes on itself in the home stretch. In fact, the entirety of last third or so of the movie was almost a complete bust between the melodrama, a series of mounting and irritating coincidences, and the return of the verbose exposition to explain exactly what was happening in the plot. It’s hard to tell which of these sins is the most damning, but the coincidences hit particularly hard, as they both compounded and highlighted the very poor storytelling choices, impacting enjoyment and even the suspension of disbelief. While it’s alright to use a technical contingency from time to time to get your characters in trouble, over using unlikely or rare occurrences simply to move your plot along - by revealing an identifying scar on Adaline’s hand, for example, or outright recreating the event of her initial, one-in-a-million accident in order to dissolve the story’s central conflict - is sloppy to an unforgivable degree, and like the use and misuse of exposition (which by this point was so out-of-place it was actually hilarious) should have been apparent to the filmmakers from the word go. As a result, I found myself cringing yet again at the silliness of the whole thing, which is never a good point on which to leave a heartfelt romance.
My judgement, unminced and seemingly harsh as it is, should not be taken as a condemnation of the film as a whole. I enjoyed Adaline on a personal level, and it left me with more food for thought than I expected. For a plot bearing so close a family resemblance to cerebral heavyweights like Benjamin Button and A.I., it puts a much-needed focus on the emotional impact such a lifestyle would have an an ordinary woman, one merely wanting to love and be loved. In fact, I would go so far as to say that The Age of Adeline is the complimentary “heart” to the aforementioned films' “head,” with a nice enough romance and an expected but well executed message on the importance of simply living, regardless of what life's put you through. It’s just too bad that it’s relatively few flaws are so glaring and boneheaded as to nearly bring down the feel of the whole film. I guess only time will tell if Adeline will be recalled fondly in the future, or left buried in the sands of time.