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Out of Frame: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
How can a film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a project endowed with so much talent, turn out to be such a dog? It is an adaptation of a fanciful F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same title -- well, to be truthful, Fitzgerald provides a skeleton around which a new story was elaborated, keeping only the basic plot about a man who is born old and ages backwards until he dies as an infant. Director David Fincher assembled an embarrassment of riches in the female cast, with the luminescent Cate Blanchett in the lead, as the main love interest of Benjamin Button, Daisy, who ages the normal way and is the same age as her great love only for a few years in middle age. In the supporting cast he has Julia Ormond -- who was so good in Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997) and then seemed to vanish from the face of the earth -- in the framing narrative as the daughter of Daisy, now an old woman, learning the story of Benjamin's life while Hurricane Katrina threatens New Orleans. That is not even to mention Tilda Swinton, as another of Benjamin's love interests, the wife of an English spy in Murmansk, Russia, who once tried to swim the English Channel.

Neither of these supporting roles is really necessary to the story, and therein lies the problem. Screenwriter Eric Roth (with a shared credit to Robin Swicord) moves the story from Civil War-era Baltimore to 20th-century New Orleans, which just happens to be Brad Pitt's latest cause. The screenplay is overloaded with endless tangents and superfluous characters, dragging out to an almost unwatchable two hours and forty minutes. Compared to the taut, impeccably written dialogue of Doubt, for example, the language spoken by this multiplicity of characters is quotidian, dull, and risible ("Sleep with me." -- "Absolutely!" is only of many scintillating exchanges). No one seems to know what story they want to tell, and no amount of whimsical cuteness, in the style of Le destin fabuleux d'Amélie Poulain (the music, by native Parisian Alexandre Desplat, even has a sort of Amélie ring to it), can create a narrative line out of the mush. As David Spade might have put it, a movie about an awkward southerner who teaches life's lessons with his goofy but simple point of view -- I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was called Forrest Gump (except that I didn't really like Forrest Gump either). Eric Roth, of course, also wrote Forrest Gump, and a mash-up of the two films might yield the line, "You never know what's coming for you ... out of the box of chocolates."

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Benjamin Button famously reunites Fincher with leading man Brad Pitt, but unlike their two previous successes -- Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999), which just about sums up the list of Fincher's good work -- this movie has little action or suspense to sustain interest. This is not to say that there are not strong performances, beginning with Brad Pitt, strongly assisted by an enormous team of makeup artists and an outlandish technical budget for digital effects. Making Pitt become gradually younger and more handsome, while Cate Blanchett is made to look more and more hideous, could be a metaphor for Hollywood's treatment of actresses and the tendency to pair older, established male leads with younger and younger female unknowns. While Pitt is generally convincing in the process of reverse aging, he is more often than not a nondescript cipher, a folksy accent in either more or less makeup. If there were less of the extraneous plot strands to distract the viewer, it might reveal just how hollow a performance it is.

Trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher

David Denby, a film critic with whom I do not always see eye to eye, has hit the nail on the head in his remarks on Benjamin Button's inexplicable sweep of the Oscar nominations:
Fitzgerald’s curt little story has been literalized and solemnized and stretched into a quest for the essence of time—it’s now a metaphysical conceit. As Benjamin makes his way, many people puzzle over the discrepancy between his age and his temperament. But who cares? The movie is given over to an infinitely patient and scrupulous working out of its own bizarre premise, and you come away from its sombre thoroughness with the impression that something profound has been said without having any idea what it could be. The central drama in the picture turns out to be Brad Pitt’s makeup. By degrees, lines and wrinkles fade; soft flesh tightens into muscle; a stiff, wobbly walk eases into a saunter. What is this strange movie really about? A guess: many people in Hollywood endlessly have “work” done to put off aging, and here’s a movie that begins with a wizened baby and ends with physical perfection, a progression that may encapsulate both the nightmares and the dreams of half the Academy.
David Denby, Curious Cases (The New Yorker, February 9)


Anonymous said...

i was pleasantly surprised to find out that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story upon which the movie Benjamin Button was based, (they mention this in the opening credits)

Charles T. Downey said...

Yes, I mentioned that in the second sentence of this review.