Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Grade: B-

At the very beginning of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (coming out Christmas Day), an old, dying woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) tells her daughter (Julia Ormond) a story about a backwards clock. About midway through the story, you might start to wonder, "Isn't this a Brad Pitt movie? Where is he?" The movie takes its sweet time getting there. Much like an old storyteller, the movie rambles on, tangentially and sometimes enjoyably, but certainly twice as slowly as you would like.

After various false starts, the movie finally starts when Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a nursing home worker, finds Benjamin left at her door. Benjamin's a baby with all the ailments of a man dying in his 80s: arthritis, cataracts, and so on. Benjamin's growing up years, that see him look steadily more like Brad Pitt, play out like the early chapters of a John Irving novel, with the unusual family of the nursing home raising him. Characters come and go, some important, some not. The most important one is Daisy, a young girl Benjamin befriends. But there is a certain enjoyable quality to the section. A lot of that can be attributed to Henson, whose warm turn as Benjamin's adopted mother gives the movie its heart. As long as Benjamin's at home, the movie's slow, rambling style fits the New Orleans setting.

But when Benjamin leaves New Orleans at "18," the movie loses most of its focus. We see many chapters in Benjamin's life, from an affair with Tilda Swinton in Russia to fighting in World War II to seeking out Daisy in New York. But there's no real narrative drive pushing him from one chapter to the next. He just passively stumbles by in life, getting steadily younger. You soon realize the movie has to go until his death, because there is no other plot to resolve.

The screenplay, though based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is written by Eric Roth, most famous for Forrest Gump. This should be no surprise, because Benjamin Button feels at times like a remake of Gump. Benjamin gives the same kind of voiceover that Forrest does, with the same pithy sayings to sum up each chapter. The movie has the same epic quality, going across the decades. It even has the same characters. Benjamin is basically Forrest, Daisy's not too different from Jenny, Captain Mike (of the World War II section) is Lt. Dan, and Queenie is obviously Mama.

But while the movie feels like Gump, it doesn't hold up to it. A lot of the reason is in the character of Benjamin. Forrest was passive as well, letting luck and history guide him. But he also had a certain drive to him, whether in pursuing Jenny or proving he's not stupid. And Tom Hanks was sympathetic and charismatic, making us want to watch him. Benjamin, on the other hand, is only interesting because he ages backwards and looks like Brad Pitt. Benjamin is a hard character to play, going through so many ages and the script giving so little insight into him. But Pitt doesn't do much with it. In the second half especially, his acting consists of "Look how handsome I am." A more astute character actor could anchor the movie, but Pitt just gets carried along in the tide.

The movie is even more plotless for how little it uses the backwards aging device. It's very prominent in the beginning, because we see it in this old man growing taller and younger. And at the end it comes back full force. But in the middle, its importance is relegated to, "Oh Benjamin, look how young you are." At one point Benjamin refers to it as his "condition," as if it were a mild case of Eczema. Forrest's low IQ was a legitimate obstacle for him being with Jenny, and he continually fought against it. But here Benjamin's "condition" just makes him more handsome. It ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity that such an intriguing plotline becomes such a minor component to the movie.

The rambling plot and weak central character might be more forgivable if the movie were not SOOO long. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it could use to lose at least 45 minutes. It's easy to see what to cut, as Roth's screenplay draws out every detail from every scene. The way the wind blows, a second-by-second lead-up to a car crash, nothing is too minor for Roth's attention. And all of these details are not conveyed visually but through a voiceover far more extensive than in Gump. Benjamin probably has more voiceover than dialogue.

The movie's disappointment is all the greater because it was directed by David Fincher, one of my favorites for helming Fight Club and Se7en. His influence is seen in the visuals, which are absolutely breathtaking. The make-up ages Benjamin, Daisy, and Queenie believably, making it hard to recognize the actors. The visual effects are incredible, creating Brad Pitt's elderly child and a vivid battle scene. The cinematography creates a mood that magically recreates old New Orleans. The costumes and sets as well all bring to life the various time periods. You can expect the movie to sweep all the visual Oscars, and rightly so.

But while Fincher knows picture, he knows nothing about emotion. Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac were loved for their cool, detached attitidues. But Benjamin Button, an old-fashioned, epic weepy, could not be more different. Trying to shift gears, Fincher feels like Dexter faking human emotions. Fincher has clearly seen big, cheesy, Oscarbait movies and does everything he can to copy them. Hence Alexandre Desplat's at times unbearable score, which blasts ultra dramatic music constantly. When the music is playing, it feels like a Chappelle's Show sketch making fun of Oscar movies. Every scene feels like it is out of an Oscar reel.

But for all the attempts to fake emotion, it all still feels empty. Benjamin's lack of personality makes it impossible to connect with him, so you don't feel anything he goes through. The end includes some of the strongest moments in the film, meant to leave the audience bawling. But the long, rambling middle so throroughly lost my interest that I felt nothing. The only relatably human character in the movie is Queenie, and when she's onscreen the emotion is there. But otherwise, Fincher has made a very pretty movie with no heart. Maybe he needs to take a trip back to Fight Club.

No comments: