The Age Of Adaline spends an unusual amount of its resources and running time approximating literature. Not classic literature, necessarily, but the kind of literary fiction with at least a passing nod at a more established work—in this case, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.” Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) isn’t aging backwards, but she has another magical-realism conceit that limits her relationships: Born in 1908, she had a car accident just short of 30 that left her just short of dead—and then, shortly thereafter, revived in a freak occurrence that froze her aging process. The movie finds her on New Year’s Eve, 2014, still 29, still as beautiful as Blake Lively (who, at 27, is playing older than her real age in two respects).
Beyond the decades-spanning story and hints of “Button,” the movie gestures toward more prose-like storytelling with passages of miscalculated narration. The narrator explains Adaline’s history with cutesy formalized constructions that sound like a prodigious high school sophomore exercising such self-conscious control over language that it turns redundant and empty; at one point, Adaline is described as “living a quiet suburban existence.” Adaptations of ambitious and beloved novels often make this narration mistake, but the Adaline screenplay is an original, confusingly attributed in a credit that manages to list one of the two writers, J. Mills Goodloe, three times, while his co-writer Salvador Paskowitz is named twice, all in a single screen.
Most of their story takes place in the present, with bits of flashbacks to Adaline’s rich past, mostly narrated and/or montaged; The Age Of Adaline, while handsome to look at, turns out not to have much epic sweep. Instead, it zooms in on its heroine’s reluctant relationship with Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a persistent and borderline pushy suitor. As Adaline’s now-elderly daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn, becoming a go-to actress to play time-bent elderly daughters) points out, Adaline’s determination to not be exposed and potentially studied has led to a long life of running away and anguished non-commitment. So yes, a fantastical magical-realist fable lushly shot in David Fincher-ish greens and browns reduces its theme to the same basic edict as a boilerplate romantic comedy: Adaline must learn to take a chance again!
Lively does what she can to sell this disappointingly rote notion, after showing promise in character parts for gritty crime dramas like The Town and Savages. Here she takes center stage for a tough job: trying to figure out how someone might roll together old-fashioned tastes and decorum solidified in the early 20th-century with decades more experience and observations past her natural lifespan. She plays Adaline with an eerie calm and self-possession; it’s as good a take as any, but her reserve doesn’t match with the supposedly whirlwind romance that’s apparently put her in such a tight spot.
The movie works better, in fact, when it de-emphasizes the couple at its center, however briefly. When Adaline and Ellis visit his parents (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker) for an anniversary party and a major revelation, the movie’s smallness briefly feels personal and appealingly old-fashioned. Ford is especially effective as a man subjected to extremely vivid and unexpected flashbacks as he celebrates 40 years of marriage. But the movie keeps returning to Adaline and Ellis, and while director Lee Toland Krieger expertly took apart the details of a complicated relationship in Celeste And Jesse Forever, he can’t work similar magic on a story that employs occasional actual magic. For a movie that emulates literature, The Age Of Adaline never fits comfortably into a particular form—literary or cinematic. It has the outline of a novel but not the scope; it has the plot of a short story but not the detail. And no amount of movie tricks—lofty narration, Danny Elfman-ish fairy-tale choral voices in the score, well-orchestrated overhead shots—can turn a dull little romance into a meditation on the nature of love and time.