4. The Age of Adaline (2015)
The Age of Adaline is a completely bonkers movie combining an overly specific supernatural premise, inexplicably omniscient narrator, heavy-handed symbolism, and overwrought performances, and yet I’m far from immune to its charms. It pulls off something rather incredible in that, not unlike Adaline herself, it feels at once timeless and completely out of touch with other movies and audiences of its day. I’m still shocked it was made just three short years ago. It’s sentimental and earnest and features the line, “I adore know it alls” without even a hint of irony. And perhaps that’s part of its allure. For, despite its faults and near misses, The Age of Adaline has gained entry into my “discerning” DVD canon as an objectively bad movie that I love in spite of myself.
To begin with, there’s the highly suspect supernatural premise. Adaline was the first baby born in San Francisco on New Year’s Day of 1908. Some years later, she marries and has a daughter. A few years after that, her husband tragically dies while building the Golden Gate Bridge. Later that same year, by way of some precisely defined yet nonsensical weather event, Adaline essentially dies and is resuscitated by an opportune strike of lightning. From that day forward, her body doesn’t physically age. Her circumstances are equatable to vampirism without the bloodlust. She gains life experience and wisdom without suffering the ravages of time. Although, she suffers in other ways. To avoid arousing suspicion during McCarthy era paranoia, Adaline must live under the radar and on the run. Her movements are predictably unpredictable, and every decade - like clockwork - she reinvents herself, taking on a new identity and place of residence. This, of course, also means she must live a fairly hermetic existence (her closest confidantes are her now elderly daughter played by Ellen Burstyn and a blind pianist believing Adaline to be her contemporary) in order to avoid inquiring minds and romantic entanglements. Such self-preservation would be altogether easier if she didn’t look like Blake Lively, frozen in amber at age twenty-nine, for the rest of her days.
In present day, some seventy years after the inciting incident, Adaline finds herself back in San Francisco. She (under the current alias, Jenny) occupies an antique-filled Chinatown apartment, where she numbers among the well-preserved decor, and works at the Pacific Archives surrounding herself with memories of her youth. The expositional backstory - stylized similarly to a superhero’s mythology - is presented to the audience by way of an archival film reel. The projected California history is simply a view of her past.
In my opinion, the character of Adaline is insufferable. There’s her vocal affect, the complicated jokes requiring explanation (and I’m one of the few who truly believe women can be funny!), the know it allness. It’s truly a wonder that men from every decade have fallen in love with her. Her carefully and cautiously plotted movements go to hell when she unexpectedly meets Ellis Jones (“Like the island?”), a handsome history buff and philanthropist. He struck it rich with some sort of weather predictive algorithm and now spends his days finding unique and altruistic ways to spend his money. Adaline - not so much a history fan as actual artifact - is surprised by Ellis’ passions and the fact that he takes her somewhere in San Francisco she’s never been before.
Their courtship is a mixed bag of hidden San Francisco treats, one-upmanship, and dad jokes. Working against her better judgment and past behaviors, Adaline sees a future with Ellis. And, for what appears the second time in her long life, she lets herself fall. Together, they take a weekend trip up north to visit his parents, who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. This celebration suffices as a direct counterpoint to Adaline’s commitment issues and the place where things get weird, narratively speaking.
At this point, I need to spoil something. Though, I would argue that it’s not much of a spoiler as the film quite precisely telegraphs this plot twist. Turns out, in England during the 1960s, Adaline knew (in the biblical sense) Ellis’ father, William. The two met while he was still studying medicine and before he met his wife and Ellis’ mother, but the implication via flashback is that he was in love with Adaline and intended to propose had she not disappeared forever. Not only does Adaline have a knack for running away, she also seems to harbor a soft spot for the Jones men.
At first, you might think, “Well, this is wonderful! Finally a movie addressing the sexist age differences in onscreen romantic pairings.” This is ground-breaking stuff to have a sex-positive portrayal of a 109 year-old woman getting busy with both father and son. But then, your eyes don’t deceive and you quickly realize that the story playing out is just the same as every other. In this suspended reality, 27 year-old-presenting Blake Lively (don’t let her sartorial sense, affection for cabs, and aversion to technology fool you!) is playing opposite 73 year-old Harrison Ford and 34 year-old Michiel Huisman. The movie side steps these icky, incestuous undertones with Ellis’ cocktail napkin platitude, “Years, lovers, glasses of wine…These are things that should never be counted.” To which Adaline can only reply, “You have no idea.”
For all these reasons, and then some, the movie is fairly retrograde in its telling of love stories. However, in at least one respect, it’s far more modern than its protagonist would suggest. Despite not having a cell phone or any social media accounts, Adaline is the ultimate ghost, flitting into men’s lives, making them fall in love with her, and then vanishing just as quickly. She cannot be photographed and she definitely cannot be in love. With all the time in the world, focused on pursuits trivial and not, she’s become brilliant and enchanting and elusive. She defies the laws of time and space. She avoids detection and definition. She’s the comet that William inaccurately predicted all those years ago. The near miss.
The film’s narrative structure also follows the comet’s predicted perigee, tracking Adaline from outer space, beginning with the furthest point, before the plot comes into full view, and finally the big reveal. In conflict with Adaline’s efforts towards unpredictability, the story telegraphs its trajectory in a most pleasing way, giving away hints and revealing details at just the right time. The twist is not difficult to determine - not a puzzle meant to be solved - so one need not get too distracted from enjoying the matter at hand. We can just sit back and observe as something magical and otherworldly flies by.
For a movie that lacks any sense of humor about itself, it’s truly funny that The Age of Adaline should alphabetically follow Adaptation. in this endeavor seeing as the former utilizes a pair of random weather events as dei ex machina. The first of the highly implausible plot contrivances sets the story in motion and provides the framework for all conflict in Adaline’s otherwise enviable life; then the second allows the film to course correct and resolve the story. And what a pleasing conclusion it is. Those two hours spent watching a great escape artist provides me with equal escapist pleasure - a chance to let go of the trappings of my corporeal existence and take up for a few hours in a world I’ll never know.