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After swanning through six seasons of Gossip Girl as Upper East Side teen queen Serena van der Woodsen, Blake Lively made some smart choices. Aside from the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies (the first of which she shot before becoming a small-screen star) and Green Lantern (which, if little else, hooked her up with current hubby Ryan Reynolds), she’s kept her head down, delivering credible supporting turns for directors like Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee), Ben Affleck (The Town) and Oliver Stone (Savages).
A preternaturally poised blonde whose statuesque beauty is softened by kind, squinty eyes and a melancholy spaciness, Lively is an odd screen presence — somehow both warm and cold, accessible and recessive. She’s long been ripe for a breakthrough lead role that allows her to stretch and surprise.
Her new film, The Age of Adaline, about a woman whose physical appearance stops changing just before she hits 30, doesn’t quite give her all that, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.
Movies revolving around time-defying protagonists have bedeviled auteurs as wildly talented as Francis Ford Coppola and David Fincher, whose Youth Without Youth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, respectively, were career low points. If the far less tested Lee Toland Krieger — who followed up his sour debut The Vicious Kind with the wittiest and most luminous of recent rom-coms, Celeste and Jesse Forever — fares better, it’s partly because he sets his sights lower. An elegantly confected cream puff of a melodrama, The Age of Adaline plays like an exercise in handling a preposterous story, booby-trapped for maximal ridiculousness, with tasteful conviction. Far from the bloated tearjerker suggested by the trailer, the film is pleasant, respectable and a bit dull, reining in the inherent silliness of its material and taking few risks.
Handsomely mounted and shot and edited with confidence and fluidity, if not much imagination, the movie (written by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz) kicks off on a note of noirish mystery as a solitary Lively, regal in the first of several long, vintage coats, walks the San Francisco streets. Via voiceover (by Hugh Ross) and a few sepia-toned flashbacks, we learn that by some stroke of pseudoscientific hocus-pocus, Adaline stopped aging the moment she was in a near-fatal car accident nearly 80 years ago. In other words, she’s a 107-year-old with a 29-year-old’s face and body (and, I guess, muscles, bones and organs, given her lack of any apparent health problems).
That may sound like a dream scenario for many in the movie business, but Adaline, wary of being treated like a freak, keeps her condition a secret. Changing her name and residence every 10 years, our heroine, despite her traffic-stopping looks, becomes adept at avoiding intimacy — and hits the road each time someone gets too close, not wanting to commit and then watch her beloved grow old and die. When we meet her, she’s working as a librarian, maintaining regular contact only with a blind pianist friend (Lynda Boyd) and the now-elderly daughter she left many years ago (a still-vivacious Ellen Burstyn). In a handful of scenes that easily could have veered into camp, Burstyn and Lively manage to convey the strange, tender dynamic between two women whose physical appearances belie their actual relationship.
All things considered, life appears to be coasting along for Adaline until she meets Ellis (Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman,who looks like a more strapping, less demented Shia LaBeouf), a charming hunk with lots of money and a rather convenient penchant for all things old. Ellis falls hard for Adaline, who, in turn, gradually gives in to his persistent courtship, and just when The Age of Adaline starts slipping into corny-romance platitudes (a cloyingly staged date at an old drive-in, a cutesy road trip), the plot twists in a welcome way: Ellis takes Adaline to meet his parents (Kathy Baker and a touching, dewy-eyed Harrison Ford), and — without giving too much away — let’s just say it’s not the first time Ellis’ dad has laid eyes on Adaline.
With clipped diction and a discreet, old-fashioned formality to her posture and movements, Lively persuasively pulls off the aural and visual incongruity of being — literally — an old soul in a young body. The performance is all the more impressive for not coming off as overly studied; Lively has a refreshingly naturalistic acting style, and she brings a quiet, unshowy gravity to the role. The fact that she’s not an especially vivid performer — picture her next to an Anne Hathaway or a Natalie Portman and she all but evaporates — actually makes her ideal for Adaline, a woman who closes herself off to the world with a demure smile.
The film itself is, for long stretches, nearly as graceful and sympathetic as its leading lady. Krieger keeps the bombast and heartstring-yanking to a minimum — even Rob Simonsen’s too-present score is relatively restrained — and weaves some fine narrative and visual details into the story, such as the photo album Adaline keeps of her dog, one of her few long-term emotional touchstones, or the fleeting shot of Ellis’ foot seeking out Adaline’s in bed the morning after their first night together. But if anything, The Age of Adaline is too polite, too cautious. It never lunges into four-hankie territory, nor does it melt into Nicholas Sparks-like goo or boil over into full-on Sirkian melodrama. For all its competence and polish, the movie feels a bit bland and noncommittal; one wonders if the story might have been better told with Almodovarian excess, or as a lean, atmospheric thriller.
The filmmakers don’t pull us inside Adaline’s head space or play meaningfully with their premise — never, for example, hinting at the character’s response, as a woman at once old and young, to the shifting social, political and cultural landscapes of the country she lives in. Instead, they stick to the wan romantic storyline, reducing Adaline’s presumably terrifying, enlightening experience to a predictable choice between following her head or her heart.
Director of photography David Lanzenberg does fine work, using different color palettes for different eras — a touch which, along with unfussy production design and period costumes, goes a long way toward preventing the film from feeling dusty or embalmed. One of the pleasures of Celeste and Jesse Forever was its shrewd use of L.A. locales, and Krieger similarly brings his settings here to casually vibrant life, with a moody Vancouver standing in for San Francisco. Whatever its flaws, The Age of Adaline proves that he can work effectively on a bigger canvas, and that Lively can hold the center of a movie with her stillness — promising omens for their futures.
Production companies: Lakeshore Entertainment, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Sierra / Affinity
Cast: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Lynda Boyd
Director: Lee Toland Krieger
Screenwriters: J. Mills Goodloe, Salvador Paskowitz
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi
Executive producers: Andre Lamal, Eric Reid, David Kern, Richard Wright, Jim Tauber, Bruce Toll, Steve Golin, Alix Madigan
Director of photography: David Lanzenberg
Production designer: Claude Pare
Editor: Melissa Kent
Costume designer: Angus Strathie
Music: Rob Simonsen
Casting: Tricia Wood, Deborah Aquila
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes
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