Friday, February 20, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

So I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or, as I like to think of it, "How To Spend $150 Million To Score An Oscar Nomination For Best Picture (but not win the actual Oscar)."

It's a gorgeous movie, very well-directed, with wonderful production design, excellent cinematography and good acting. But underneath the expensive special effects (which you can't tell are there, but which you know are, in fact, there) are two things: kind of a cool gimmick, and a story that isn't as interesting as the gimmick.

The gimmick is that Benjamin Button ages backwards. He's born the size of a regular human baby, but with the afflictions of an 80-year old man. He gradually becomes more limber, his wrinkles disappear, his hair comes back, he turns into Brad Pitt.

His mind, however, ages just like the rest of us; he's an innocent child, then an adventurous young man, then a somewhat stable middle-aged man, etc.

The one thing that Benjamin Button never is, however, is a fascinating character apart from his chronological quirkiness. Brad Pitt earned an Oscar nomination for the role, and I think he deserved it, if only for the technical challenge. But the character is just not that exciting. He's fairly passive. He's kind of shy. He's not particularly smart or creative or crazy or charismatic. He falls in love early on with a girl in the neighborhood. This is interesting because they're both children, but he looks like her grandfather. They are, of course, star-crossed lovers, flirting for years, abandoning each other, finding each other, etc. She is played by Cate Blanchett, and watching the two of them light up the screen is oddly comforting and heartwarming. They cross paths, timewise, in middle age. It's the 60's, a particularly candy-colored version thereof, when people their age were hip and groovy and Simon and Garfunkel were brand new. It's a cozily nostalgic remembrance of an allegedly more innocent time.

It threatens to become sentimental, but never does. David Fincher, who is better known as a director of intense thrillers (Seven, Fight Club) and stunning music videos (Madonna's Vogue, Paula Abdul's Cold Hearted Snake) knows what he's doing.

A co-worker mentioned that it feels like Forrest Gump, and there's a good reason: both were written by Eric Roth. Forrest Gump's great charm came from the fact that, because he was too stupid to lie, so he was always telling the truth. Benjamin Button the movie lays on the charm with almost every shot. Benjamin Button the man has trouble charming the love of his life, to say nothing of the audience.

There's a good framing device; the story is told by a woman reading her mother's diaries, while she sits with her mother in a hospital. The older woman is dying, and dying quickly. The younger woman is played by Julia Ormond, who was once the hottest young starlet in Hollywood. In this movie she looks like a hard-worn version of Sandra Bullock. She's not remotely glamourous, but mature in a way that suggests she has a deep well of wisdom and self-imposed tough love. I'm focusing on her because although we know very little about her, and, in a movie with lavish costume and production design she wears the same thing in a basic setting, she anchors the movie for a simple reason: she's the most real thing about it. Welcome back, Ms. Ormond, hope to see you again soon.

I like Brad Pitt, I like Cate Blanchett, I like David Fincher (although I prefer his music videos to his movies). I liked Benjamin Button, but I didn't love it. One part of the definition of an epic story is that it has to be a story of national significance. Forrest Gump accidentally became an epic because it told a story against a backdrop of many incidents of national significance. Benjamin Button does almost nothing of the kind, despite covering a longer span of time. Forrest Gump is also a movie of both great tragedy (his mother, best friend, and wife all die) and high comedy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a comfortable drama, which, apart from being almost a contradiction in terms, is not a recipe for greatness. Or a Best Picture Oscar.

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