Thursday, December 25, 2008


THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

A strange choice for director David Fincher. There’s no denying the visual impact of his best work, but there’s also no denying the emotional coldness either. SEVEN and FIGHT CLUB are two of the most famous examples of Bleak Chic, films that revel in their own status as Hip Cynical Bummers. ZODIAC upped the ante a good deal, combining Fincher’s trademark visual finesse with a group of characters that seemed to have some connection to reality. BENJAMIN BUTTON seems to offer Fincher the chance to join the Major Director Club, to move from Chilly Technician to Soulful Visionary. Alas, it doesn’t work. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON has all the heart and soul and passion and warmth of Dick Cheney.

BENJAMIN BUTTON is the story of a man who ages in reverse. Born as a miniature version of an old man, an infant with gray hair and arthritis, he gradually gets younger as he gets older. He gets more limber, his hair gains color, and he basically becomes Brad Pitt (a mixed blessing, as it turns out). Benjamin’s journey from Youthful Old Age to Aged Youthfulness spans about 80 years from WWI to Hurricane Katrina, he witnesses assorted Big Events of the Century, and occasionally meets up with his One True Love Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett.

Comparisons with FORREST GUMP can’t be avoided, and BUTTON has GUMP’s screenwriter, one Eric Roth. GUMP and BUTTON are both set in a Louisiana where things like race and money are never issues. Benjamin’s youthful use of crutches to walk echoes Forrest’s “magic legs,” and the on-again off-again decade-hopping romance between Benjamin and Daisy is a replay of Forrest’s affair with the doomed Jenny. BUTTON has a strange symbolic hummingbird that implausibly shows up at strategic times, a la GUMP’s famous feather. Roth also tosses in elements of THE ENGLISH PATIENT, in a framing device showing Daisy on her deathbed having her daughter read Benjamin’s diary to her as Hurricane Katrina prepares to rage outside.

Think about it. A combination of FORREST GUMP and THE ENGLISH PATIENT.

Still with me? The movie aims hard at being a fantastic-type meditation on time, love and loss. All the signifiers of Hollywood’s version of Serious Cinema are there: luscious production values, cutting edge technology, Oscar-winning actors from abroad, distinguished literary pedigree, nearly three hour length and all that. The movie is a big fat piece of Oscar bait, perhaps the most blatant since the atrocious COLD MOUNTAIN. Fincher seems to have studied Anthony Minghella closely, as it happens: no film since Minghella’s passing shows his influence so thoroughly. There’s a total lack of passion and energy that the director of THE ENGLISH PATIENT and COLD MOUNTAIN would instantly recognize as his own, combined with that Mingellian Delusion Of Relevance that makes his films such agony to sit through. The film goes through its carefully orchestrated and arranged and computer generated paces, each narrative and technological cog clicking into place like the creation of the blind clockmaker in the film’s opening anecdote. Fincher, alas, is no visionary. He’s a mechanic, more interested in showing off his techno-toolbox than anything else.

The cutting edge technology is most particularly in evidence in the depiction of Benjamin’s reverse aging. They seem to have used a variety of actors of assorted sizes and added an aged version of Brad Pitt’s face to them where necessary. The results don’t really work terribly well, I don’t think, especially in the first half of the film where Pitt looks more like 70s singer/songwriter Paul Williams than anything else. Pitt doesn’t suffer alone. The process by which Cate Blanchett is made to look about 20 years younger than she is comes off like some hideous page out of Airbrushing For Beginners. These effects keep calling attention to themselves, at the expense of the characters and ultimately the film. It eventually settles down a bit, by the time that Pitt and Blanchett are supposed to be near the same age and can play their roles without techno-cosmetic assistance, when Fincher starts to load on the lingering closeups of Pitt’s astonishing beauty, but it is too little too late.

I’ll say it clearly, because nobody else will. At heart, the film’s biggest problem is right there on the poster and above the title. Brad Pitt’s alleged performance is a colossal bore, a great black hole that sucks the energy out of all that surrounds it. There’s a certain possible justification for some of it, I guess. Benjamin Button is after all a freak of nature. He is fully aware of his difference, and aware of how it might be seen by others, and a certain emotional reserve might be an interesting starting point for an actor to build a performance on. For Pitt, this reserve is the final destination, the beginning middle and end of his attempt at a performance. It isn’t just a matter of the digital tweaking to make him look older or younger. There’s just nothing there. His voice is a flat uninflected monotone. His eyes are unlit with any sign of life. Tens of millions of dollars worth of CGI aging technology and a battery of technicians can’t add life where Pitt doesn’t. Just watch what happens when the sublime Tilda Swinton appears onscreen with Pitt. She lights up the screen in a way that poor old Brad just can’t come near, and quite simply obliterates him. It could be argued that Swinton’s performance is also the one in the film least affected by CGI and latex, but it is more than that. She steals the film by sheer acting ability alone, showing more humanity in one single smile than the rest of the film is able to summon in its entirely indefensible three hour running time.

Life’s too short. Avoid this one. You’re not missing a thing.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

How is it that Roscoe knows so much about (shudder) "Forrest Gump?" Just hearing that name makes me nauseous.

Maybe the comments that Pitt's best performance to date is in "Burn After Reading" are true. Hmmmmm....

Does Roscoe have a pronouncement, or is he boycotting the Coens again?

Roscoe said...

I only see the Coens when there is a compelling reason to do so. There was nothing about BURN AFTER READING that made me even remotely interested in seeing it. Assorted dear friends and family whose opinions I respect liked it. Well, okay.

Pitt's best performance? Uh, it has been downhill since THELMA AND LOUISE.

Pooji said...

Didn't like Pitt in TWELVE MONKEYS, then?

Anonymous said...

I think you're a terrific writer, Roscoe.

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