Friday, April 24, 2015

The Age of Adaline: Refuses to grow up

The Age of Adaline (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and much too harshly, for a single suggestive comment

By Derrick Bang

I’m a sucker for romantic fantasies.

I may be the only person in the country who fell under the spell of last year’s Winter’s Tale, which remains woefully under-appreciated. Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan still work their magic during the fourth (fifth?) viewing of 1998’s City of Angels, and the 2009 adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife — although not perfect — captivates nonetheless.

Despite decades of cautious, low-profile activity that has kept her safe, and out of public
view, Adaline (Blake Lively) allows herself to fall in love with Ellis (Michiel Huisman),
thereby granting him tacit access to the carefully guarded details of her life. We can't
help thinking that this is unwise...
As for the 2007 adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust? Simply delightful.

All of which makes me one of the ideal target viewers for The Age of Adaline ... and, therefore, one of many doomed to disappointment.

This is an extremely difficult and delicate genre. One false step — a contrivance too many, a tone too maudlin, a tragedy too melodramatic — and the whole endeavor collapses like an improperly cooked soufflé.

Scripters J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz definitely have a clever premise here. Their execution, however, leaves much to be desired. Director Lee Toland Krieger isn’t much help either; his oeuvre centers around snarky, modern-era gender battles such as The Vicious Kind and Celeste & Jesse Forever. Krieger, apparently operating outside his comfort zone, hasn’t the faintest idea how to make this eccentric drama work.

Which is a shame, because stars Blake Lively and Michiel Huisman are very good together. Their line deliveries sparkle, the tension between them crackles, and — despite the overwhelming odds against — we genuinely want their star-crossed relationship to catch fire and endure.

But Krieger, Goodloe and Paskowitz keep getting in their own way. Every time we succumb to Lively’s melancholy charm and radiant incandescence, we’re yanked out of the moment by a particularly tin-eared line of dialogue, or another load of pseudo-medical gibberish from the off-camera narrator.

Let’s start with that narrator.

Never has a film been less in need of off-camera commentary. Apparently unable to perceive any of the gentler, more satisfying ways of conveying essential information, Goodloe and Paskowitz have their omniscient observer (Hugh Ross) bury us beneath paragraphs of laughably technical codswallop.

Perhaps they were inspired by Jim Dale’s wonderfully arch commentary throughout each episode of TV’s lamentably short-lived Pushing Daisies. Trouble is, that show’s tone is overtly whimsical and deliberately exaggerated, whereas Adaline exists in the real world. And in the real world, pedantic explanations are boring and inappropriate.

As Gene Roddenberry famously — and quite astutely — observed, way back in the day, James T. Kirk doesn’t pause to explain the scientific basis for a phaser, even though it’s made-up future tech; he simply shoots the Klingon. Roddenberry assumes that intelligent viewers will grasp the weapon’s function in context ... and, of course, we do.

It’s therefore ludicrous to waste time trying to impress us with a sound medical basis for what happens to Adaline Bowman: a long-winded sermon we get not just once, but twice, before this film is over. No surprise, then, that many patrons amid Tuesday evening’s preview audience snickered quite loudly.

Grant us the willingness to take it on faith, and move on, fercryinoutloud.

Born to a working-class family in San Francisco near the turn of the 20th century, Adaline (Lively) grows up to enjoy an average life, marrying and bringing a daughter (christened Flemming) into their happy little family. But then dual tragedy strikes: Her husband dies in a construction accident, and then she skids out of control while trying to drive amid a freak Northern California snowstorm.

The crash should have killed her, but doesn’t. It has, however, changed her: She simply stops aging, destined to remain 29 forever.

Years pass before she perceives and then comprehends the magnitude of this unexpected gift, by which time Flemming (Cate Richardson) is beginning to look more like Adaline’s sister, than her daughter. But the country soon becomes embroiled in World War II, and Adaline continues to skate under the radar, until the post-war paranoia of McCarthy-era investigations.

Suddenly perceived as a suspicious anomaly, Adaline narrowly escapes government intrusion; she subsequently vows to change her identity and move to a radically new location every decade. The price is emotionally crippling: no long-term friends or lovers, and a reclusive, ordinary lifestyle that precludes any activity that might bring her to the attention of photographers or journalists.

This back-story is sketched economically via a flashback montage; the story focuses on Adaline in the here and now. Deciding that enough time has passed, she has returned to San Francisco with her most recent persona. She works in a library, and lives in a modest apartment in the city’s Chinatown district; her only constant companion is an adorable dog.

Her one good friend, rather cleverly, is a blind pianist who entertains at posh city nightspots. Which is where, at a New Year’s Eve ball, she meets cute with Ellis Jones (Huisman), a charismatic, dot-com gazillionaire-turned-philanthropist who refuses to be dissuaded by her practiced aloofness.

Flemming, now in her 80s (and played with luminous charm by Ellen Burstyn), remains the only person who knows her mother’s unusual secret. Flemming laments the isolated life that Adaline has endured, and suggests that maybe it’s time to relax, and live a little. Against her better judgment, Adaline allows herself to be drawn — however tentatively — into Ellis’ life.

A decision, we figure, that can’t end well.

Krieger devotes the totality of his film’s lengthy second act to this blossoming relationship, and — to be fair — it’s a sweet interlude. Lively is appropriately cautious, even apprehensive; alternatively, she’s mischievously smug each time Adaline surprises Ellis (and us) with the depth and breadth of her accumulated knowledge.

Imagine having the insatiable curiosity and retention of a permanently 29-year-old mind: No wonder, then, that Adaline is ferociously book-smart and speaks a multitude of languages.

Huisman, in turn, is radiantly charming, his every move suggesting warmth, kindness and savoir-faire. Ellis is patient, calm but gently relentless; Adaline simply can’t resist him. (No kidding. Wealthy, gorgeous, intelligent and attentively devoted: Could the guy be any more perfect?)

Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker pop up in the third act, when Ellis takes Adaline to meet his parents, William and Connie. Ford’s William is genial, gallant and endearingly flustered; it’s easy to see where Ellis gets his charm. Baker, as always, is striking as a woman of wisdom and grace.

The situation ... gets interesting. About which I’ll say no more, except to note that the increasingly irrational climax destroys all of the good will established during the far more satisfying second act.

And, as a result, we start to notice the narrative’s clumsy lapses. Did Flemming ever marry, or have a family? There’s no evidence she did ... in which case, why not? What purpose is served by the token appearance of Ellis’ sister, Kiki (Amanda Crew)? She delivers one comment about how she no longer uses phones, because she doesn’t trust the government/industrial complex, or some such nonsense: a wildly out-of-left-field couple of sentences that just hang there.

After which, Kiki amounts to virtually nothing.

Speaking further of tin-eared dialogue, at one point William bizarrely comments on how “unusual” it is for a “beautiful woman” to work in a library, as if to suggest that something must be wrong with such a person. Say what?

And what, pray tell, is the point of the comet whose return William has prophesized for decades? I know how Goodloe and Paskowitz intend that element to slot into their storyline, but the effort fails. Utterly. More incongruous weirdness.

The Lionsgate press site includes a series of nine posters that showcase Adaline “through the ages,” roughly every decade from 1925 through 2014, as Lively models a series of gorgeous outfits assembled by costume designer Angus Strathie (who won a well-deserved Academy Award for 2001’s Moulin Rouge!). Rest assured, Lively looks marvelous in every one of them, although we get only the barest glimpse of several, during the film.

But these posters made me realize how much more satisfying Adaline’s saga would have been, if presented in a miniseries format that spent a leisurely hour or two with her persona during each decade. Frankly, it might have made a fascinating TV show.

As a 110-minute movie, not so much. Wrong director, incompetent writers.

Despite all their considerable efforts, the sparks generated by Lively and Huisman fizzle and wink out, like a spent fuse.

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