THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
1. David Fincher can make anything look great, whether it’s a diverting fake whodunit like The Game (which I love), a Nike NFL commercial or video from A Perfect Circle. Giving him a big budget, an epic scale and all the CGI one can muster is almost unfair, like giving a baseball team a couple of extra fielders. This movie looks gorgeous, in every frame, and the effects are seamlessly blended; strangely, the only time Brad Pitt looks fake in this movie is when he’s younger, not older. There’s one shot, of a placid ocean with a rocket taking off in the background, that I’ll be seeing in my dreams months from now. On a purely visual level, it’s hypnotic. (Even the Website is mesmerizing.)
2. The premise of the film, as anybody knows, is that poor little Benjamin Button is born 81 years old and then ages backward. This is a powerful metaphor that is captured in the film’s tagline: Life can only be understood backward. It must be lived forward. A grand sentiment, sure, but the movie never really explores it further than that. Does Benjamin Button learn anything because he ages backward? Does he have a special insight that no one else in the film has? Is he particularly tortured by his special circumstances? No, no, and no idea. This is, for all intents and purposes, a road movie. Benjamin Button meets some fascinating people from different decades and has fascinating, different experiences. And there’s a girl from his “youth” who he’s kind of in love with in a distant, vague way. That’s the whole film. OK, so, you have a man who ages backwards. That’s amazing. Now what? This movie isn’t interested in the now what. It strives so hard to be epic and about EVERYTHING that it’s hard not to suspect it’s about nothing.
3. Much of this is telegraphed by Pitt’s performance, which is so vacant it’s barely a performance at all. That is not to say he’s bad; he just doesn’t have anything to do. (I can never figure out if Pitt’s a bad actor or a good actor. I’ve found him greatly entertaining in several movies, but I’m not sure he’s ever been asked to play anything other than “movie star” or “wackball.”) Fincher seems to have explictly instructed him merely to react to whatever happens to him, stare blankly and move to the next occurrance. Pitt does this well, but why is he doing this at all? Brad Pitt is not an actor in this movie; he’s a tour guide. I think by having no definitive personality at all, Fincher wants Benjamin to somehow stand in for the audience, have us project our own beliefs and emotions onto him, see him as our proxy. But the way Pitt has been asked to play him, there won’t be a single person in the audience less interesting than Benjamin Button. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to make Button cranky, or selfish, or destructive, or, you know, something? We don’t even really get a sense of what it must feel like to live backwards. Lord knows Button doesn’t seem to have any opinions on the matter.
4. The movie’s framing device is Cate Blanchett’s Daisy character on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital as her daughter reads old letters to her from Benjamin. While this is going on, a big storm is brewing outside. You can probably guess what storm it is. It’s easy to see why the filmmakers chose Katrina as a framing device. It lends their story a veneer of importance, another card played from the Epic deck. And the payoff gives us another grand visual moment. But not to get too political here, but I couldn’t help wondering why, in the midst of one of our country’s most tragic recent episodes, I was supposed to be overly concerned with the urgency of an old white woman hoping to finish up her life’s remembrances before the storm knocks out the power.
5. Ever wonder what Forrest Gump would look like directed by David Fincher? Here you go. The similarities between the two films are striking. Unblinking, unaware lead character who shambles into situations he doesn’t quite understand. Confused, impressionable object of his affections who never realized the true love she had right in her back yard until it was almost too late. Sprawling story told over several decades of momentous historical events. (Perhaps coincidentally, Eric Roth wrote both films.) Sure, this film is not nearly as cloying, saccharine and obvious, and Fincher is dogged about not giving into to any Big Emotional Moment temptations. (He’s too chilly and removed for that.) But this film doesn’t have nearly as appealing a lead performance and, well, sometimes it might actually be nice to know what your main characters are feeling every once in a while. This is a film that tries to be so big that it doesn’t have to worry about having a heart; this movie is about LIFE! But the movie holds us at an odd distance. Turns out, Fincher really isn’t the type of guy who can make a Big Oscar Film. It is one thing to resist big movie moments; it’s another to masochistically hold the audience at arm’s length just because you can. Everything sure is pretty, but I’m not sure this movie has anything to say.
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