Monday, January 05, 2009

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Do you all remember “political capital,” that nebulous and vaguely defined “stuff” that Bush-the-gasbag said he had earned in the 2004 election, and which he planned to spend wisely in his second term? I bring it up only because I wanted a frame of reference for the idea of “cinematic capital,” which had never really occurred to me before tonight, while I was watching The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. (Unlike Bush, however, this movie earns the capital - but the movie does piss away its capital the same way Bush pissed away his legacy.) Amy and I roped her parents into babysitting and went to Zing for dinner and then the movie afterwards. Benjamin Button was the one Oscar heavy so far that I just couldn’t make up my mind about - is it really an art film, or just an effects-laden Hollywood production masquerading as art because it’s based - however loosely - on a short story by Scott Fitzgerald?

I haven’t read the whole story yet, although I have found a couple of good links to the entire text online. Based on the first few pages, however, the film appears to be connected to the story in name and basic premise only - that is, a person called Benjamin Button who is born as a little old man and ages in reverse. Much like There Will Be Blood departed from Oil!, the Upton Sinclair novel upon which it is based, David Fincher’s film pretty much does an about-face and marches in exactly the opposite direction from the Scott Fitzgerald story.

The story is told in a frame, which is difficult to do well (for instance, The Green Mile) and adds - often unnecessarily - to the film’s running time. The character of Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is attended at her deathbed by her daughter (Julia Ormond, in a wasted role) and asks her daughter to read Benjamin Button’s journal to her - she says - because she just wants to hear the sound of her daughter’s voice. Frame narration is a useful way to ease transition, and sometimes to elucidate plot points; but the plot is not especially complex here. To wit: Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born an old man - tiny little baby body, but shriveled skin, cranky demeanor, and so on. In fact, come to think of it, there is no plot. The film simply follows the life of Benjamin, playing on the novelty of a character who ages in reverse.

After the frame intro, we zap back to New Orleans in 1918, and the birth of Benjamin on Armistice Day. His mother dies in childbirth and his father, horrified at the appearance of the baby old man, abandons him on the doorstep of a gentle black woman named Queenie, who - though also horrified by his appearance - takes him in and raises him as her own. The art direction is very good throughout most of the film, but particularly early on, evoking the mood of the south in the early twentieth century in dark earth tones and low lighting and elaborate sets.

There’s no doubt that the picture looks really good, especially in the bits that are more along the lines of period piece. The acting is also reasonably good, especially Brad Pitt in the bits where he’s the much-older, goblin-sized, young Benjamin. Pitt’s voice-over work is also good, subtle but expressive. The trouble is with the scope of the film - and this is really just a way of saying that it’s too damn long and is trying to do too damn much. David Fincher has a tendency to let his movies get away from him (The Game, Fight Club), though perhaps not to the extent that Martin Brest (Midnight Run, Meet Joe Black) lets his movies get away from him - but man, is he on his way.

See...Benjamin grows up, learns to walk and run and drink and visit brothels, and he meets the love of his life as a old young man, and then he goes out to sea, and eventually he returns, but the love of his life is gone, and then she’s back and they get together, and then break up, and get together again, and break up again - and this last break-up has him abandoning his own child the way his father abandoned him (only for the opposite reason). And yet, there’s no kind of weight to what’s happening, only the barest of irony that Benjamin, in classic Faulknerian fashion, repeats the sin of his father. It’s as though Benjamin should be thought noble for sparing his child the indignity of watching her father age in reverse, as though the idea of such a person is so much greater than the actual character.

And thus it appears - whether this was the intent or not - that achieving the form of epic was the highest goal. Never mind the implausible directions that the already-implausible story takes, never mind the ways in which an injection of science (maybe Fincher is a Republican who toes the party line and chooses to believe that science neither exists nor works) might have contributed to the kind of subtle humor that pops up from time to time (how many different ways did that guy get hit by lightning?). Never mind any of that. A man born old who ages in reverse surely won’t have any trouble conceiving a child. Clearly junk science did not die with global warming denier Michael Crichton. the space of about half an hour while writing this I’ve managed to develop what sounds like an active antagonism toward a film I liked two-thirds of. That’s not the case. The first two acts are actually pretty good; most of the junky crap is relegated to act three. It even took me longer to develop an active antagonism toward Slumdog Millionaire, although that engine has built up a good head of steam at this point. Would that someone had called William Goldman and said, “Hey, Bill, I’ve got a script here that’s got a solid act one and a solid act two, but act three is a piece of shit. Can you help us out?" But maybe no one calls Mr. Goldman anymore; or perhaps he’s too jaded from that whole Good Will Hunting fiasco. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, however, I understand (if I do not agree with - and I absolutely do not) the Best Picture buzz on this one. Oscar loves epics, even grossly overrated ones (gotta love the 1990s for spawning three such pictures: Dances With Wolves, Braveheart, and Titanic). Lop off the last act, write a quick, effective fifteen minute ending, and we’ll talk. Otherwise, Scott’s grave is liable to catch fire from all the spinning he’s doing.

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