Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The most appropriate response to David Fincher's movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may be the three-word first sentence of Keith Phipps' review at The Onion A.V. Club: "'Curious' is right." The picture starts out bizarre, then makes one strange, wrongheaded choice after another. It's always watchable, only fitfully involving, and ultimately mystifying.

On a technical level, the movie works: The makeup and digital-effects folks will have deserved their Oscar nominations. But Brad Pitt merely inhabits the makeup, adding nothing to a character that's an utterly passive cipher to begin with. Peter Sellers' Chance, in Being There, is a colorful go-getter by comparison. And figuring out what age Pitt is supposed to be from scene to scene is ultimately just annoying.

As Daisy, the love of Benjamin's life, Cate Blanchett tries harder and comes off better, but she, too, is hobbled first by the CGI equivalent of Botox (to make her look like a teenager) and later by increasing layers of latex. (That Daisy must suffer far more than Benjamin in the course of the movie is depressing but unsurprising, given that the screenplay is by Eric Roth, who also wrote the screenplay of Forrest Gump.) Blanchett's deathbed scene, to which we keep returning throughout the movie, is fully as interminable as Ralph Fiennes' in The English Patient, but saddles the star with far less expressive makeup. You'd never know, from the hospital sequences, that Blanchett is one of our most electrifying actresses; anyone could be under all that goop.

Speaking of age makeup: "Blink," a Hugo Award-winning 2007 episode of Doctor Who, requires a character named Billy Shipton to age decades from scene to scene. On the Third Series DVD set, the creative team explains the rationale for casting the veteran actor Louis Mahoney as the older Billy, rather than putting makeup on 20-year-old actor Michael Obiora, playing the younger Billy. Basically, the argument goes, age makeup -- however well-done -- is never convincing and always distracting. Such honesty in the service of storytelling is refreshing, but impossible for the makers of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Without the lure of a star turn beneath age makeup, would the picture ever have been made in the first place?

Makeup issues aside, the movie has too many other elements I just couldn't buy. I never believed that Benjamin and the black woman who adopted him (played by the talented Taraji P. Henson) had a cross-racial mother-son relationship. Queenie seemed more like Benjamin's devoted housekeeper. (Should I be ashamed that I kept thinking of Steve Martin and Mabel King in The Jerk, and thinking that their relationship was more convincing?) The movie's refusal to acknowledge the civil-rights era in any way also rings false, a big cop-out. I never believed that Daisy's daughter (a lovely but wasted Julia Ormond) would have been ignorant of Benjamin's very existence until her mother's deathbed reminiscence -- especially since we learn later that the young Caroline actually had met Benjamin, in a scene of Great Portent that any 12-year-old would have picked up on. I never believed that any of these people actually lived in New Orleans, the arbitrary setting for most of the movie. One suspects it was plunked there only so that Hurricane Katrina could come ashore at the end -- a plot element with only offscreen relevance, the ruined Ninth Ward being one of Pitt's favorite causes.

And worst of all, I never felt anything but creeped out when the outwardly elderly Benjamin and the 7-year-old Daisy (played by 10-year-old Elle Fanning) fell in love at first sight and immediately began sneaking off together for secret conversations and play dates. (Pedophiles will love those scenes.) Remember Father Guido Sarducci's old Saturday Night Live routine about the "Coming and Going Planet," where some people are getting older and others younger, and couples who meet romantically while aging in opposite directions are very soon "in big-a trouble"? I don't think the makers of Benjamin Button really believe it would be big-a trouble.

The most entertaining stuff in the movie has nothing to do with the Benjamin/Daisy plot:
  • The roaring, tattooed tugboat captain played by Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris.
  • The diplomat's wife who seduces Benjamin under the impression he's old enough to be her dad, when in fact she's his Mrs. Robinson. She's played by the reliably sensational Tilda Swinton, who makes any period costume look current.
  • The running gag about the old guy whose claim to fame is having survived seven lightning strikes, each depicted as a Keaton-style silent-movie flashback. (According to the Internet Movie Database, the actor who plays the lucky Mr. Daws, Ted Manson, died at 81 this past summer, before the movie was released.)
  • The period vignette at the beginning about the curious clock built by Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), and his reasons for building it. This vignette includes a brief battlefeld shot that's the best thing in the movie.

    Cutting all these sequences would have made the movie 40 minutes shorter without affecting the Benjamin-Daisy story -- at the cost, alas, of most of the movie's entertainment value.
  • Saturday, December 27, 2008


    Whatever else it is, John Patrick Shanley's movie of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Doubt is an acting tour de force. On Broadway, the roles of the two nuns, the priest and the mother all earned their performers Tony Award nominations; Oscar nods should be distributed similarly.

    Much has been written about the performances of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis, and deservedly so, but Amy Adams as the wide-eyed younger nun shouldn't be overlooked, either. She's terrific, and necessarily so, since in many ways Sister James is the pivotal character. In their high-stakes struggle against one another, Sister Aloysius and Father Brendan both work hard to sway Sister James' sympathies. Each succeeds, in part -- one more than the other -- but in the process, we get to watch Sister James, who is somewhat unformed at the outset, decide who she intends to be. The movie is dedicated to a Sister Margaret James, Shanley's kindergarten teacher, and the play -- corrosive as it is, at times -- must have been written in part as a tribute to her. Without an utterly convincing Sister James, the story wouldn't work nearly as well. Is there anyone alive who can portray innocence as believably as Amy Adams (witness Junebug and Enchanted)? She was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Enchanted; I hope she isn't robbed this time.

    A scene in the middle of the movie, in which the two nuns and the priest are having an awkward tea and an even more awkward conversation, could be shown to acting students as a master class. Watch each performer, and you see reflected not only the character's inner life, but how the character is responding, moment to moment, to the other two characters. The dialogue sometimes reflects these responses, sometimes not, but the primary communication is through line delivery and facial expressions and body language. It's like the embodiment of the character matrix I draw on the chalkboard for my fiction-writing students (having stolen it from John Kessel): What does Sister Aloysius think of Father Brendan at this moment? What does she think of Sister James? What do Brendan and James think of Aloysius? What do Brendan and James think of each other? And so forth.

    The movie is also interesting as a genre exercise. Only when it was over did I realize that among many other things, Doubt is an exceedingly well-disguised mystery play, with an artificially limited cast of characters and point of view, a set of clues to be gnawed over, a set of conflicts to erupt, a series of reversals to spring like traps on both characters and audience. It's Twelve Angry Men; it's Sleuth.

    Whenever I watch a movie full of Catholic priests and nuns, I think about how visual and cinematic Catholicism is -- which is why Catholic themes outnumber Protestant ones 10 to 1, in movies that treat organized Christianity with any seriousness at all. While watching Doubt, I also found myself realizing that it would be a very different movie if I were Catholic -- devout or casual, current or former -- and if I ever had attended a Catholic school. Sister Aloysius had no parallel in my young life, at W. Wyman King Academy or St. John's United Methodist Church.

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    The Lord's sport utility vehicles

    Here's a Reuters report on Sunday's service at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit (site of Rosa Parks' funeral), at which the Rev. Charles Ellis prayed that Congress save the U.S. auto industry. Check out the photo slide show.

    Yes, those are three hybrid SUVs (Chevy Tahoe, Chrysler Aspen and Ford Escape) parked at the altar. Hundreds of auto workers gathered before them to be anointed with oil.

    "We have done all we can do in this union," a United Auto Workers vice president told the congregation, "so I'm going to turn it over to the Lord."

    Actually, since the oil embargo of 1973, the Lord's advice to the U.S. auto industry has been pretty consistent, and pretty consistently ignored: Build smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. What have they been waiting for, a burning bush?

    I just realized why that altar crowded with SUVs unnerves me so: It reminds me of the ICBM on the altar of the ruined St. Patrick's Cathedral in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Is Bishop Ellis confusing scourge and savior?

    (Thanks, I think, to Greg Frost, for disturbing my sleep with this.)

    Friday, December 12, 2008

    The world's first drive-in service station

    The Associated Press reminded us Monday that Dec. 1 was the anniversary of the opening of the world's first drive-in service station, in Pittsburgh. The Gulf Oil Historical Society has the admirably obsessive details here, with photos. Too bad there's nothing on the site now but a parking lot.

    "Keep Wiseman," 1969

    I just learned that my colleague John Wiseman, emeritus professor of history at Frostburg State University, once was a cause celebre. In his latest Cumberland Times-News op-ed piece, he writes, "My teaching career began at Keene State College," but adds that his tenure there "was shortened by a protracted battle I experienced with the president of that school, one that I lost, along with my job."

    He's not kidding. This article in the summer 2008 issue of the Keene State alumni magazine, a nostalgic look back at the campus in the 1960s, includes a photo of a crowd of students who "boycotted classes on behalf of faculty member John Wiseman." Beneath the headline "Convocation on the Wiseman Case, 1969," the article elaborates:
    [President Roman "Jay"] Zorn's conflict with one faculty member, John Wiseman, began as a disagreement over salary and evolved into major student demonstrations on behalf of Wiseman, whose contract was not renewed for a third year. The Board of Trustees eventually supported the administration's decision, but a Faculty Evaluation Advisory Committee was created to advise the Dean on tenure/promotion decisions.
    I wish I had one of those "Keep Wiseman" buttons.