“No guns, no killing, no cursing, no se–, uh, gratuitous sex. It was just … interesting.”
Such was one patron’s satisfied summary after a screening of The Age of Adaline. (Indeed, only a “suggestive comment” about a hypothetical backseat quickie separates it from PG purity, and even that hardly seems saucy enough for a PG-13.)
She’s right, mostly: A handsomely mounted romantic melodrama with featherweight sci-fi touches about a woman who stops aging at age 29, The Age of Adaline is interesting … albeit eventually and for few of the reasons you’d expect. And there’s nary a pistol in sight. You may wish for one, though, with which to fire warning shots at the film’s pedantic narrator to scare him off his scientific prattling … or, at worst, wing him.
Born, married and made mother and widow in mere minutes during a montage, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) gains permanent youthfulness and presumed immortality in 1937. She’s struck by lightning after accidentally driving off a bridge and seemingly drowning in the water — her resuscitated body, the narrator intones, to be unravaged by time.
Consider it a mix of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Highlander, without the former’s downer-and-blessing lyricism and the latter’s decapitations or pro-wrestling interludes. Most people pack suspension of disbelief alongside their hankies for stuff like this. But magical realism? Ain’t no narrator got time for that. No, he explains and explains that the cold water caused an “anoxic reflex” to slow Adaline’s heart as the lightning “compressed the electrons of her deoxyribonucleic acid.” Nothing says romance like ribosomal rhapsodizing.
Hugh Ross’s elegant, embittered tones befit the beguilingly scripted voiceover for 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But this narration feels like an obnoxious over-correction to cotton toward complaining nitpickers dragged there by better halves. It comes off a hostile peer review to pick apart the inexplicable alchemy of a fairytale, as if writers J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz initially feel ashamed by their story’s very existence.
Their choices compress the film’s deoxyribonucleic acid, too, rushing a contemporary romance between Adaline (who changes her identity every decade) and self-made tech millionaire Ellis (Michiel Huisman, who, between this, Wild, Game of Thrones and Orphan Black, is today’s stereotypical sensitive bohunk journeyman. “Ellis. Like the island?” Lively asks. “No man is,” Huisman replies, his face impossibly straight.
Despite brief flashbacks to the 1950s and ’60s, there’s no immersive sense of a temporal sweep, cultural shifts or the turmoil of a mother whose fermata lets her daughter age past her. (As Adaline’s daughter masquerading as her grandmother, Ellen Burstyn introduces subtlety and spark of which the movie could use far more.)
Moreover, the pace hinders what Lively, and her signature spacey, squinty somberness, can accomplish. She wisely plays Adaline somewhere between schoolmarm and siren, her folded-hands classiness covering up an incisive wit and repressed desire for physical affection. But the movie’s constrictive formalism too often hems her in; Adaline is more curiosity than character, and Lively’s performance is all mannerism, little meat.
Thankfully, there’s a confident optimism to its second-act meditation on the conflicted middle ground between past and future. And it has nothing to do with either pretty person at the film’s center. In fact, it’s facilitated by the unlikeliest of actors: Harrison Ford, whose nuance (when he bothers with such things) often suggests a guy struggling to swallow hardtack rather than suppressing a lump in his throat.
Ford plays William, a scientist into whose 40th wedding anniversary celebration Adaline unexpectedly stumbles. We’re used to seeing Ford save the day. We’ve never seen him save a movie, until now. For all their early faults, Goodloe and Paskowitz have given Ford a thoughtfully crafted character, and he meets their commitment. In perhaps only 10 total minutes of screen time, Ford wholly embodies and embraces six sides of William’s soul — scientist, husband, father, lover, senior citizen, confidant — and emits palpable expressions of joy, confusion, exasperation and pain. William long ago recalibrated his life toward the predictable rigidity of science, and when he’s forced to confront that choice, Ford finds an emotional vigor you weren’t sure he had in him even 30 years ago, let alone today. (Relative newbie Anthony Ingruber also excels in a small, pivotal, role in this segment.)
It’s here, in a character not named Adaline, that The Age of Adaline so effortlessly addresses the nexus of never-was or the crossroads of coulda-been to which we can all achingly relate. It eases off the gas of its gimmick to coast into the engrossing melodrama you expect, with a performance from Ford so strong that it outshines the eventual Nicholas Sparks playbook finale and more damnable narration.
No guns, no killing and no cursing, to be sure. No confidence to let its current of compassion carry it from the start, either.