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The Age of Adaline
Matt Zoller Seitz,
Not many movies go from "eh"
to "wow." "The Age of Adaline" is one of them.
"Gossip Girl" star Blake Lively plays the title character, a woman who meets
and loses her husband during the construction of the Golden Gate bridge, then
miraculously survives a car wreck and emerges as an ageless being whose looks
are frozen at age 28. She can be killed, but she will never die of natural
causes or succumb to the usual ravages of time, which gives her relationship
with her daughter (played as an older woman by Ellen Burstyn) a fairy tale or
horror movie aspect. (It's sort of a vampire film minus the bloodsucking.)
Adaline spends the rest of
her life running from entanglements of every kind. Whenever anyone gets hip to
the fact that she never ages and wonders if there's something odd about that,
she slips away in the night and starts over as someone else.
This sounds more compelling than it plays, at least at first. As written by
J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz and directed by Lee Toland Krieger,
"Adaline" starts off handsome but dramatically inert. The third-person storybook
narration drifts in and out as needed. The imagery—though shot through with
fairy tale special effects and meticulous re-creations of period cityscapes,
cars and costumes—feels more literary than cinematic: a slide show illustrating
a novel that never was. The casting of the leads doesn't add any spark. Lively
is a poised and intriguingly restrained beauty, but the script treats her
character as a figurine with no discernible interior life, and the actress does
nothing to contradict that impression. She's not bad, not great, just competent,
and present. (There are moments where the storybook narration evokes "Amelie"
and "A Very Long Engagement," which likewise keep their heroines at arm's
length, but Lively is no Audrey Tatou.)
Michiel Huisman fares no better as Ellis Jones, the first man to win
Adaline's heart in decades. Although he displayed off-kilter charisma in HBO's
"Treme" and "Game of Thrones," he's asked to play a conventional 2015 male
ingenue here: a bland dreamboat with kind eyes, a well-trimmed beard and
mustache, and rock-hard abs. Ellis wants them to spend the rest of their lives
together, but Adaline (who now goes by Jenny) can't find the nerve to tell him
why this can't happen. She's nice, he's nice, they can't be nice together. It's
a sad predicament, but there's no tension in it.
Then Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker show up as Ellis' parents, William and
Kathy Jones, who've been married for forty years. Suddenly "The Age of Adaline"
locks into just the right tone and rarely steps wrong. William is struck by
Jenny's resemblance to his great lost love, Adaline, with whom he had a brief
but intense affair in the '60s. Adaline is as rattled by him as he is by her,
but she recovers and says Adaline was her mother, and that she died a long time
ago. Rather than defuse the situation, the lie sends William into a depressive
spiral of drinking, agonized flashbacks, and awkward confessions that set his
wife on edge. "You should see her face when you talk about her," she tells him.
We have seen his face. It's devastating. Ford's voice—always deep, lowered an
octave by age and one more by William's longing—is even more powerful. This is
Ford's best performance since "The Fugitive," maybe since "Witness."
Sigmund Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" might as well be the film's secret
other screenplay. Something about the configuration of characters and secrets in
the Jones house strikes uncanny notes, plunging the movie into a tender fugue
state. Suddenly a stable and mutually nourishing marriage is shaken by a
husband's rekindled love affair with a woman who (in theory) no longer exists,
and whose absence he'd accepted long ago. This is not a May-September romance.
There are too many complications and mysteries and too much elapsed time for
things to resolve that way. It's a tragedy of a love that can no longer be.
This twist triggers a flood of simple but big emotions, and "The Age of
Adaline" wades into it with confidence, laying out all four major characters'
predicaments with sympathy and intelligence, and never shying away from
the sentimentality at the heart of every scene and line. Lively and
Huisman spring to life; instead of writing them off as inoffensive eye candy,
you start to appreciate them as actors, and see shadings in their characters
that weren't apparent before. Krieger's direction sharpens up as well. The last
half-hour of "The Age of Adaline" has a symphonic purity of feeling, piecing
together simple closeups and elegantly choreographed wide shots so intuitively
that the story seems to be telling itself. There are moments that may remind
viewers of "Somewhere in Time," another doomed love story whose glaring faults
receded once the film started plucking the audience's heartstrings like a
virtuoso cellist. (Christopher Reeve! John Barry! That penny!)
The concluding moral diminishes what came before; it makes the film seem like
a glorified self-help manifesto about the necessity of commitment when it's
really a dream of love lost, found and redefined. Nevertheless: wow. I've never
seen a less involving movie become so compelling at the exact moment when you've
resigned to write it off as just okay. What happened? Maybe the lived-in
authority of Ford and Baker served as an emotional tuning fork and helped the
second half find its pitch. Or maybe this is another case of a big-budget movie
getting so wrapped up in creating pretty images that it failed to notice that
its first half wasn't working. No matter: this is powerful film, often in spite
of itself. You want it to break your heart, and it does.
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