Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Age Of Adaline (2015) - Movie Review

When it comes to speculative fiction, there are a number of narrative ideas that are fairly universal across that rather nebulous umbrella: Totalitarian regimes that are only slight exaggerations of the governments of today, using intergalactic aliens as an analogy for illegal aliens, taking the idea of those who don’t learn the past are doomed to repeat it to its logical extreme, fashion in the future will only continue to get more ridiculous, etc. One of the ideas that is surprisingly common is that of the immortal lover: A romantic interest that has far less or far more of a lifespan than your own and the consequences of having a relationship with them. Anyone who has experienced the now-faded scourge of the vampire romance, or watched Doctor Who since the 2005 reboot, will be more than familiar with this idea so telling it in a way that won’t just be digging up old narratives is difficult. Hell, it’s been used that many times that even I’ve written about it before (Shameless plug, I know, but check it out here; it was as part of a crowd-sourced book on the idea of Immortality).

The plot: After a car crash that should have killed her, Adaline (Blake Lively) can never age and could potentially live forever. As her visage starts to attract attention, she creates a plan to constantly keep moving to avoid being found out, a plan that inevitably means that she can’t stay attached to anyone save for her daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn). However, when she happens across the hopelessly romantic Ellis (Michiel Huisman), she thinks that she might have found someone that can make her stop running.

The film’s genre classification as 'fantasy' is fitting to both the premise and tone of the film, but it’s also jarringly inaccurate at the same time because of the narration that bookends the film, along with adding some clunky plot exposition to the middle. The book-ending largely serves to give a somewhat scientific explanation for the incident that caused Adaline’s eternal youth, but this ends up serving as a triple-edged sword. It does work at adding some believability to the premise, but the way in which they explain it is more than a little puzzling, to the point where a seemingly small line of narration ends up being a lot bigger than I think even the writers intended. It uses a bit of pseudo-future-science to explain how the lightning strike affected Adaline’s DNA, and without getting too technical about what is most likely complete nonsense, the narrator mentions that humanity will discover the effect naturally on their own in the near future. The idea that humanity will just happen upon the means to continue the human lifespan indefinitely in a few decades opens up so many questions that it would probably require a whole other film at the very least to answer them. It honestly would have been a far better idea to explain it as being straight-up magic, or better yet not explain it at all and just leave it at a bolt of lightning that could be interpreted however the viewer wants to.

The third effect of this, and as much as I play up the implications of the explanation this is easily the most important, is that the attempt at realism clashes with the rather whimsical tone the rest of the film takes. This is mainly an issue with the dialogue, which to put it bluntly is too witty for its own good. Not to say that it’s bad, as it’s entertaining for the most part but it doesn’t sound natural. The dialogue, for the most part, feels like it was written specifically just to be clever and didn’t take into account that its effect is lessened by the fact that this doesn’t feel like real human conversations. Normally, I would blame this as an adaptation issue, given how this kind of speech is common in novels but doesn’t translate so well to screen, but this is actually one of the rare few films out right now that is a true original. Then again, a quick look at the writers’ credits might explain this: J. Mills Goodloe, co-writer of the romantic slop of The Best Of Me, and Salvador Paskowitz, whose only prior writing credit is for something called Nic & Tristan Go Mega Dega; your guess is as good as mine on that one.

Actually, J. Mills Goodloe’s involvement might explain why the romance elements are a bit rocky in terms of progression: Ellis is shown at points exhibiting serious stalker behaviour with the usual routine of tracking down Adaline’s address without her knowledge and the like. I’m guessing that this is a hereditary character trait because Harrison Ford as his father is… quite unsettling in most of his scenes with Adaline. Seriously, he looks like he wants to dissect her for his own pleasure with how far he pushes the unintentional crazy here. Oh, and there’s one exchange between Adaline and Ellis involving a miner that Ellis works with that is so rom-com that it’s entirely out-of-place in this movie.

What makes the dialogue feel even more bizarre is that the rest of the writing is actually extremely good.  The majority of it is filled with refreshing subtle touches to portray some pretty significant aspects of the story, usually those involving Adaline’s actions and her reasons for them. Sure, the dialogue detracts from that a little with how on-the-nose it can get, and the narration literally spelling things out doesn’t help either, but I genuinely love how this film has enough faith in its audience to not have to spell everything out for them, which ends up making the overall experience that much better despite how uneven it can get. The most uneven point of the whole thing though, outside of Adaline’s relationships with the men in her life having a few too many conveniences to buy into entirely, is the ending. Without getting into *SPOILER* territory too heavily, it wraps everything up too neatly for how heavy the situation is and at too coincidental a point within the story; honestly, it would have hit harder emotionally without the convenient wrap-up of the premise. It doesn’t help that this also shows the narration at its most pretentious, something that it thankfully managed to evade prior to that point.

As much as I have ragged on some of the characterisation, the actors themselves are very good: Ford and Huisman may be playing creepers at points, but ultimately they do expertly with their romantic material concerning Adaline, and Lively portrays the confidence, heart-break and overall strain of an extended lifespan like the best of them. However, the definitive highlight goes to Ellen Burstyn who gives an outstandingly layered performance that suits her character perfectly. Flemming is Adaline’s daughter who looks like she should be Adaline’s grandmother; it’d be a shock if she didn’t have a bizarre connection with her mother. Whenever they are on-screen together, Burstyn acts like she is Adaline’s daughter, mother, grand-mother and best friend all at the same time. I’ve talked before about mindfragging, where an aspect of a film can cause several conflicting emotions to be felt at the same time and leave the brain in a state of pleasant confusion, but I haven’t come across a performance that is itself mindfragged before now; I’d question how intentional this all was, but I honestly don’t care to look into it. If anything, knowing that this kind of weirdly natural brilliance was unintentional kind of makes it that much better.

All in all, this is a rather nuanced take on an old idea, with great acting, writing and production values. However, the overall quality of the film is hurt by the less-subtle moments of both dialogue and plot development, the narration that could have easily been left out as the visuals would have explained what it would have said even better than the narrator could have and the occasional disjointed romantic elements. This is a love story that, at its core, has so much more to offer than a distressingly large number of more romantically-inclined films of late; even with how flawed it is, I still recommend checking it out if you have any liking for cinematic romance.

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