Interestingly enough, the biggest problem with the tender, old-fashioned, and surprisingly engaging “Age of Adaline” is not a preposterous concept. The idea of a woman who stopped aging at age 29 some 75 years ago is handled quite beautifully. What dings this otherwise impressive and moving story is an incomprehensible lack of chemistry between the two romantic leads.
Proving she has the stuff of movie stars, a poised Blake Lively is perfectly cast as our title character, an achingly beautiful woman aged 108 trapped in the body of a young woman. Some sixty years ago, Adaline learned that in a world where only you are forever young, what at first might seem like a blessing is really a curse.
Every ten years, before anyone can notice her secret, Adaline drops everything and starts over with a new job, name, and home — and sometimes a new country. Other than her 82 year-old daughter (Ellen Burnstyn) and a middle-aged friend who is blind, Adaline has no emotional life. For obvious reasons, the thought of a significant other brings more pain than the lonely alternative.
Through well-constructed flashbacks, one involving a newsreel (which is ingenious), we learn of Adaline’s past. Today, though, she is Jenny, a librarian, and because this is a love story, what happens next is no surprise. There are plenty of surprises along the way, however, thanks primarily to Harrison Ford, whose introduction to “Jenny” is one of the best moments in the film and his long career.
Without stooping to irony or anything resembling post-modernism, “The Age of Adaline” plays like one of those great women’s pictures from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the ones that made Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford immortals. “Adaline” is as pure a melodrama and as absurd a concept as a “Mr. Skeffington” (1944), but plays almost as well primarily because it lacks self-awareness and takes itself seriously.
Lively is the whole ballgame, and her beguiling mix of approachable beauty that hides something unknowable contributes in ways no screenplay ever could. Like her Golden Age predecessors, Adaline is both strong and vulnerable, independent and longing for a partner, always dignified and yet capable of experiencing joy. Contradictions make for compelling characters, and most of what makes Adaline so compelling is achieved wordlessly by Lively.
“Adaline” also succeeds at conveying its protagonist’s emotional burden. Though they never speak of it and believably behave as mother and daughter, words are not required to communicate the heartache of watching your own daughter grow into an elderly woman. Moreover, ever-present is the poignancy of an eternal cycle that means witnessing your world and everyone in it eventually disappear. This is a movie that makes you feel something.
It really is unfortunate that the central romance fails to generate sparks. As Ellis, the historical preservationist immediately smitten with Adaline, Michael Huisman is dreamy enough to elicit a gasp from the college-aged ladies in my screening at the sight of his naked torso. There is nothing, though, that explains why he is able to break through where so many others have obviously failed. Chemistry is necessary for the audience to need the couple to find a way to be together, something I never cared about. Another minor misstep is jarring voice over, which is straight out of “Magnolia” and “The Assassination of Jesse James.”
Movies as varied as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), “Forever Young” (1992), and “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) have touched on similar themes, as has “Late for Dinner,” a little known 1991 gem. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” did as well, and even used Burstyn in the exact same way. To its credit, “Adaline” is less enamored with the gimmick and almost exclusively devoted to the human consequence of facing the impossible choice between embracing emotional solitude or the certainty of unspeakable loss.
The fact that in reality this is a choice all of us face is, of course, what “The Age of Adaline” is really about.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC