Friday, December 26, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

F. Scott Fitzgerald's story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" gets put on the screen in an adaptation by David Fincher, the director of crazy thrillers like "The Game" (and most famously, the cult classic "Fight Club"). The film is epic, yes, but it really is in the wrong hands. The film has a score of interesting ideas. The thing is, they are trapped in a cliche-populated script by Eric Roth. Guess what he wrote: "Forrest Gump." Not such an original comparison; I've read an Answer Man column as well as an IMDB post about it (which got me thinking), but it has to be said. Roth's no stranger to the genre of Southern "folk lore." The movie drifts way closer to its predecessor than it should: there's a major connection in the sea in both movies, and the accents of Button and Gump are nearly identical. "Gump" is a better film in many ways.

"Button"'s main flaw is its binding: the story is interspersed with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) at her deathbed with her daughter reading Benjamin Button's diary. The setting is New Orleans during 2005, when the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history swept through. This is a problem because without this the film would be seamless and graceful. Julia Ormond's stilted acting makes this the absolute lowlight of the movie. The story itself works well on certain levels: Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, very miscast, with a couple of other actors playing him earlier on) is born as an old man, and ages backwards. All this is able to believed by the magic of cinema. The young/old Button is dropped off at the home of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson of "Hustle and Flow", who's very good), who runs a halfway home. She is the perfect mother for Benjamin, and she helps him into the world quite well. While he's growing up here, he meets Daisy at a party. She is his age (6 years younger, we find out later), but she looks her age. Their love affair is broken up mostly because of his age and also his job: tugboatsman.

He meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) in Russia on the job, and he has an affair with her that ends abruptly with a note: "It was nice to meet you." It reminded me of "Say Anything," where John Cusack is heartbroken: "I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen." He gets back together with Daisy eventually, but she's off dancing at the Majestic theater, "living" the dream of the Wheelers of "Revolutionary Road." Then, while in Paris performing, her leg gets crushed and she can dance no more. She has Benjamin, though. The script is filled with these cliche epiphanies that together state "everyone's not perfect." Also employed is Forrest Gump's mentality: I remember his comment about Abbie Hoffman ("The man liked to swear a lot.") These things really don't help the movie; they actually make the movie predictable. What twists there were quite obvious to me. This also could have been helped.

The movie also had a tendency to jump at having images instead of words. One character describes himself being struck by lightning, and Abbott describes swimming the English Channel. There was a scene in "Rachel Getting Married," where Anne Hathaway described herself, drugged, driving her younger brother into the water and killing him. This scene had to be one of the most effective of the year, and a mini-movie would have lessened its impact. The lightning scenes are played for laughs, and although the rest of the audience thought they were great, I couldn't have disagreed more. I believe that Fincher was a bad choice in many ways for this gig, especially because he's innovative in his own way, and his vision here clashed with an excellent opportunity. The story's practically not able to be brought to the big screen, but it could with the right push and pull. Just not Fincher's. C+

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a scene of non-graphic violence, some brief sexuality, and some language.

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