1/30/09

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the David Fincher film, and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the F. Scott Fitgerald story, have five things in common: the title, the conceit of a man aging backwards, the main character's name, failing to do much interesting with the conceit of a man aging backwards, and, of course, Brad Pitt received Best Actor nominations for both.

There's much more obvious and ready source for the film that would be clear even if it weren't written by Oscar-winning Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, and that is that earlier film.

Both films feature slow Southern narration by the main characters, who are both sort of autistic boys/men with absent fathers (though Button gets a good stepfather) and strong mothers with their own homey catchphrases ("Life is like a box of chocolates..." for Gump, "You never know what's coming for you" for Button--Gump, again, winning hands down). Both feature a "timeless" love story which survives the long, adventurous absence of that main character, who ends up fighting a war along the way. Both characters spend lots of time on boats. Both films include some version of the famous line "I have to go pee." And both feature a series of colorful adventures which are basically unconnected, though that is much more the case for Button. At least Gump had the unifying virtue of Tom Hanks's strong performance. Benjamin Button is essentially a cipher, a spectator in the film without a strong personality.

In fact, Button pushes a lot of overfamiliar buttons. Julia Ormond's presence in the film keeps recalling her love story with Pitt, Legends of the Fall. The New Orleans setting brings to mind Pitt's previous "out-of-time" New Orleans character, Louis from Interview with the Vampire. Cate Blanchett's character's older self is the same older self of her character in The Aviator, namely, Katharine Hepburn. And the whole plot of the film was done better on television as Stephen King's "Golden Years." All were superior efforts to Button.

The chief attraction of the film is to see digital effects used so widely in a dramatic film, a real rarety, though likely to become much more common. The aging backwards of Brad Pitt was almost enough to keep me on the edge of my seat the whole time. Will they pull it off? (They do.) Will it mean anything? (Not much.) Blanchett is also aged forward using several different techniques, digital effects among them, and it is as seamless and convincing.

There are also strong supporting characters like Benjamin's adoptive mother, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, Hustle & Flow), Rampai Mohadi as Ngunda Oti, an African Pygmy who says he was exhibited in a zoo and gives the young (old) Benjamin a crash course in being different, Jared Harris as Benjamin's first boss, the tugboat Captain Mike with whom Benjamin sees action in World War II, and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott, a spy's wife and Benjamin's first love affair, who easily takes the title of most interesting supporting character we don't see nearly enough of.

And Cate Blanchett is amazing. Her character, Daisy (finally, a Fitgerald reference), ages more than Benjamin Button does, and more interestingly. She is a dancer and a dance instructor, a Bohemian and a wife and mother, in and out of love and entranced with life. To witness her performance is a revelation, and, had it really connected with the rest of the film, it might have saved it.

As it is, Button is more of a movie-obsessed mess than a standalone work of art. I'm still not sure what setting the modern frame during Hurricane Katrina was supposed to mean or add; I actually found it superfluous enough to be somewhat insulting to the memory of the real event. It has many echoes, some fine moments, admirable acting, spectacular, unique effects and hardly a soul. Quite a few of its Oscar nominations are well taken, but not Best Screenplay, Actor, Director or Picture.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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