The Age of Adaline

Movie people have been lapping at the fountain of youth since cinema’s creation, both on-screen and off. That’s no surprise given that cinema confers a kind of immortality on performers even if, as parades of tragically frozen faces attest, it can get confusing for the real people on camera. In Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond so deeply embodies this confusion that she punctuates a banal observation with a pitiful question: “Stars are ageless — aren’t they?” Norma may be a Hollywood tragedy, but the movie brilliantly proves that she’s got the ageless part right.
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In “The Age of Adaline,” Blake Lively plays the title character, a woefully under-conceptualized gimmick who, after a strange car accident — lightning flash, a cold bath, some narrated mumbo-jumbo — stops aging. Adaline becomes forever 29, but, like a few vampires, knows that immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Because while her clock stopped ticking in 1937, time kept on marching, of course, taking with it various loved ones, including a line of Cavalier dogs. By the time the present rolls around, Adaline has become an emotional shut-in. Her closest companion, outside the latest Cavalier, is her daughter, Flemming, who’s played by Ellen Burstyn, who in turn played a woman who rises as a Christ-like healer after a car accident in “Resurrection” (1980).
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Ellen Burstyn, left, and Blake Lively as her ageless mother in “The Age of Adaline.” Credit Diyah Pera/Lionsgate

What comes around goes around — gods, people, intimations of immortality. Adaline, alas, isn’t resurrected with any special talents (not aging is more burden than gift for her, and certainly not an aptitude); the problem with this movie is that she isn’t resurrected with much of a personality, either.

Best known for the television show “Gossip Girl” and her red-carpet appearances, Ms. Lively has done some fine work elsewhere, including in “The Town” and especially “Savages.” Here, though, she delivers a muted, largely opaque performance, an unfortunate choice given that Adaline shows few signs of having lived through two world wars, the space age, the Beatles, the invention of the pill, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, punk rock or, really, anything at all.

The filmmakers try to insist that time weighs heavily on Adaline, but there’s little in J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz’s script that suggests that the years have left her with much more than an expansive wardrobe and a knack for both languages and Trivial Pursuit. Far too often here, Adaline’s parade of period dresses, coats and handbags stand in for the richness of human experience. The director Lee Toland Krieger is good with actors, especially in the expression of a low-key, unforced intimacy. And the movie features some very nice performances, including from Michiel Huisman, who plays Ellis, the equivalent of the modern prince charming (a.k.a. a tech millionaire), and a touching Harrison Ford as William, a mystery man who gives the story tears and heft.

Best of all, though, is the underused Ms. Burstyn, who makes her every scene pop. Flemming is brought in after a newsreel-style recap of Adaline’s life in one of the movie’s smartest, most effective and meaningful interludes. Adaline, for reasons that never really make sense, is on the verge of moving out of San Francisco, something she does every 10 years. The two women meet at a restaurant where, facing off in a booth, they rapidly assume their respective roles after Adaline maternally chides Flemming for using too much salt on her food. It’s a familiar routine, and lovely. All at once, Ms. Burstyn, with just a few bobs of her head, a whine creeping into her voice and not an iota of digital help, transforms into a petulant adolescent. It’s the most magical scene in the movie.

“The Age of Adaline” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). There’s a sad visit to a vet.

The Age of Adaline

Opens on Friday

Directed by Lee Toland Krieger; written by J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz; director of photography, David Lanzenberg; edited by Melissa Kent; music by Rob Simonsen; production design by Claude Paré; costumes by Angus Strathie; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.

WITH: Blake Lively (Adaline Bowman), Michiel Huisman (Ellis Jones), Kathy Baker (Kathy Jones), Amanda Crew (Kikki Jones), Harrison Ford (William Jones) and Ellen Burstyn (Flemming).

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