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.

    Anonymous said...

    Andy: I didn't dislike it as much as you did, but my ass was busted when it was over. If I'm gonna sit for three hours watching a movie it better be spectacular. Too many frames -- the clockmaker thing was unnecessary (although I did also like the battle field scene) and even the hospital stuff with the old lady dying I could have also passed on entirely. Still there were scenes ans characters I really liked and I also didn't mind the slowness sometimes. That little old man Pitt, hobbling around was a creep show.
    Jeff Ford

    coffee said...

    Benjamin Button was very Fincher-esque... almost as good as his other stuff if not for some nagging plot holes

    Anonymous said...

    Sorry but I haven't seen a vehicle yet that Brad Pitt can't ruin with his awful, awful acting. Really, it just makes me cringe....

    Charles Vess said...


    Interesting comments, but I'd have to say that since I've already sat through it twice (I could not stop thinking about it) and both times it seemed to pass sublimely by in a rich cascade of emotions and visual atmosphere that I thought it the kind of movie I'd like to see more of: evocation, poetic non-ironic, non-cynical and not at all bombastic. I will watch cate Blanchette in any thing but here I was really won over by Pitt's very subtle performance. But maybe I'm just an old fogey afterall...


    Barry said...

    And yet it, not Dark Knight, gets an Oscar nomination. Do you ever get the sense that these "Best Pictures" are chosen by the very same people who picked our "prom queen" in high school (to pervert an analogy from P.J. O'Roarke.)