On its surface, The Age of Adaline may look like what might happen if Nicholas Sparks wrote The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But this strange little love story turns out to be the opposite of those Sparks swoon-fests, for better and for worse; in those films, effective, entertaining romance is generally undone by harebrained plotting and tonal mishmash. The Age of Adaline, for its part, delivers the twists and turns of its fantastical plot with elegance and confidence. Here, the weak romance threatens to bring everything down.
The film offers us the story of a young woman, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), born on New Year’s Day in San Francisco in 1908, who loses the ability to age after a freak car accident and lightning strike. (Cutely verbose narration informs us that the specific scientific phenomenon that explains this won’t be discovered until 2035.) So, Adaline remains in her late 20s, even as the world advances around her. That causes more problems than you might think: She can’t get too attached to her lovers, or even her friends; she has to change her name and identity every few years; ex-classmates, now a lot older, recognize her and freak out; in the 1950s, the FBI starts to hound her because they think she might be a spy; she has an album filled with photos of pet pooches that have died; her daughter grows up to become an old woman, played by Ellen Burstyn. The good news is she can’t die, she’ll always be harrowingly beautiful, and she’s owned stock in Xerox since the company’s inception. (“I’m patient,” we see her telling her banker, in flashback.)
But the film wants to be a breathless romance, and so most of it is set in the present day, when Adaline, now called Jenny and working for the San Francisco city archive, is wooed by a hunky, rich, soulful playboy named Ellis (played by Game of Thrones and Orphan Black’s Michiel Huisman). Our heroine resists his advances, but he’s too perfect; he even shares her interest in forgotten San Francisco history. Then, he takes her home to meet his parents — and dad (Harrison Ford) turns out to be one of Adaline’s brokenhearted former lovers. The moment where this seemingly content, aging family man sees his lost love again — as fresh and beautiful as the day he met her — is probably the film’s most exciting, beautiful scene; we forget how good Harrison Ford can be at being bewildered.
But the romance between Huisman and Lively is supposed to be the central attraction here, and while they are both supremely attractive, it’s hard to buy them as a couple — in part, because their interactions turn mostly on Adaline/Jenny’s withholding nature. It’s baked into the plot that these two characters can’t really get to know each other, at least at first. So their ensuing romance feels more like narrative convenience than anything else. They go through the motions of affection, and they look great doing it, but we don’t really feel anything.
Still, there’s so much in Age of Adaline that works that you almost want to cut it some slack for the stuff that doesn’t. Lively brings real poise and depth to a tough character: Her cool, calm delivery betrays years spent masking inner hurt. (I was reminded of Robin Wright’s chilly but vulnerable Claire Underwood in House of Cards.) Ford is better than he’s been in ages, and it’s nice to have him back; it’s nice to see him smile again. Director Lee Toland Krieger, whose previous films The Vicious Kind and Celeste & Jesse Forever displayed both an elegant sense of atmosphere and focused performances, has fun jumping among the decades, and he does a solid job keeping the tone just playful enough that we don’t ask too too many questions of the silly premise. But The Age of Adaline has a fundamental weakness: The tepid romance is supposed to structure everything else, so the film feels disjointed — a series of good, sometimes even great scenes in search of an organizing principle. You walk out of the film pleased, but unmoved.