13 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Eric Roth
Full credits from IMDb

More people must die in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button than throughout an average explode-‘em-up Hollywood picture. And that’s saying something. Infused with death and obsessed with mortality, the film is ostensibly about the passage of time as it relates to the ephemerality of life. “Babies are born, people die,” the title hero (Brad Pitt) says, and that’s the gist of the movie. It opens with a short parable about a blind clockmaker and his backwards-ticking timepiece that sweetly demonstrates the painfulness of time’s irreversibility. It then spends over two irreversible hours examining that theme more closely.

Loosely, and I mean loosely, based on a novella by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Button does concern a curious case: the eponymous Button was born old and is aging backwards, and the film is about the lifelong love affair he had with a childhood (so to speak) friend (Cate Blanchett) in between their 20th Century adventures. Any hopes for poignancy to be wrung from that set-up are dashed by a lazy script from the pseudo-prestigious Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich). Although Button is a fictional construct, the movie closely follows the convention of the biopic—short scenes tied together by voice-overs and montages—and, like that genre’s famous offenders (e.g. Ray), it deals largely in vapid clich├ęs. Life is precious, live it to the fullest, don’t be afraid, you’re only as old as you feel—that sort of pablum. “Life’s a funny thing,” said in voiceover, is more saccharinely meaningless than even “life is like a box of chocolates.” In Benjamin Button, you usually know what you’re going to get: simplicity and facileness, including cartoon supporting characters like the crusty tugboat captain, the magical black Southern servantry, the revival tent preacher, ad nauseum.

But Fincher does his darndest to raise the movie above the level set by its lamentable script. After becoming the toast of Critics’ Town with the grim and gritty realism of the violent and obsessive Zodiac, Fincher tries the generic opposite—a romantic fantasy. His formal mastery is still fully present, from the melancholic amber haze that suffuses the bulk of the film—the dim but thick lamplight textures courtesy Harris Savides—to the intricate period design and visual effects. (Thanks to computers, Pitt plays Button in nearly every stage of his life, including when he looks like a midgeted, wheelchaired Cheney.) Roth inserts a throwaway motif—a man who often mentions how many times he was hit by lightning—but Fincher illustrates each example with footage that looks like it was shot for Mac Sennett, turning a repetitive joke into a successful running gag.

Thanks to touches like these, Button avoids the abject failure a lesser director (coughcoughRobertZemeckiscoughcough) would surely have created. But the one thing Fincher can’t direct his way out of is the film’s absurdly long first act, which threatens to turn the story into mere gimmick, used to support a silly fable. I get it, he ages backwards; Button is overstuffed, in love with its CGI and set dressings. A whole reel about an affair in turn of the ‘40s USSR with Tilda Swinton, shot like a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Carmen Sandiego, adds little to the story but time. Fincher still manages to maintain the fantasy’s credibility, again flaunting his skill, and by the third act—the last 45 minutes or so—Button, hitherto a parade of insipid insight, unexpectedly finds strength in the simplicity of an inevitably tragic love story. After the closing credits, I sobbed the whole way to the bar.

Fincher maintains the fantasy’s credibility largely by divorcing the film from history. Though the film is framed by Blanchett’s daughter reading Button’s diary to her deathbed-bound mother—vaguely reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands’ frame—while Hurricane Katrina approaches their New Orleans hospital, the movie doesn’t hit very many real life touchstones, keeping us steeped in the film’s impossible logic. The Great Depression goes unmentioned, WWII is only briefly acknowledged (because otherwise the Senior Matinee Crowd won’t help build sufficient Oscar buzz), and the ‘60s are established with a spaceship launch (gorgeous!) and the Beatles on television (dangerously Gumpy). The Katrina frame actually turns out to be meaningful, although it doubles as one of the ways that Roth frequently tries to draw a comparison between Benjamin’s otherness and that of the African-American community, to an effect somewhere between offensive and laughable. Button was born on Armistice Day, the end of that generation’s greatest slaughter, and his love dies on hurricane touchdown, arguably this generation’s greatest disaster (hitherto). Although the final shot seems like the filmmakers may have simply exploited the tragedy to find a visual expression for The Floodwaters of Time, this is, after all, a movie about death. So shouldn’t it end with a whole hell of a lot of it? Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

1 comment:

Clayton L. White said...

Bonus points for mentioning Carmen Sandiego. God, that takes me back.