Monday, December 15, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is the kind of relentlessly one-note writing that you might find on any and every episode of Saturday Night Live. Come to think of it, I'm quite fascinated with SNL's method of comedy: their game plan seems to be to take a lone joke, tell it once, then proceed to beat the living hell out of it for an entire skit. Whether it is the first time or the tenth time, the same exact joke is delivered with the same exact earnestness with no apparent care for the law of diminishing returns. And David Fincher's new movie, adapted by Eric Roth, is like watching a two hour and forty minute version of "It's Pat."

Admittedly, I went into the movie skeptical, but it is hard to do otherwise with familiarity to the source material. The original short story of the same title was published in 1922 and is, as far as I can tell, a silly allegory for America's descent into juvenalia from the 1860's to the 1920's. Next to some of F. Scott Fitzgerald's other short stories, "Benjamin Button" does not stand a chance.

Eric Roth, on the other hand, apparently sees the story as a chance to explore the impossibility of sustaining romantic love, or the tragedy of two lives crossing only briefly -- Benjamin receding in age, and Daisy advancing, leaving them only a small window to fulfill their connection. And, also admittedly, this is a great thematic take on a somewhat lacking story. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on these two characters, Roth gets swept up in the expanse of Fitzgerald's story, and the result is a redundant and unfocused movie that drags, drags, drags. The phrase "redundant and unfocused" might seem like an oxymoron, but if "Benjamin Button" has any redeming quality, it is the ability to reconcile that phrase with startling clarity. Oh, how thankful we should be.

The film begins on the night Benjamin was born an old man, which also happens to be the night victory was declared in World War I. This is the first of many times Roth tugs on the collective consciousness in order to make up for a lack of actual story, or emotion, or character. Benjamin's life also passes through such major events as Pearl Harbor, the Apollo 11 launch, and the story even ends as Hurricane Katrina hits. The rest of the movie essentially consists of the same gimick over and over again: Benjamin is getting older, but actually getting younger! Also, he's getting older, but he's getting younger! By the way, older younger!

This kind of short-selling is annoying, but familiar. Roth's "Forrest Gump" dwindles major moments in American history down to Tom Hanks -- the real reason Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to give his almost inconceivably important civil rights speech was because of a retarded white guy. "Benjamin Button" is a pale shade of this. To suggest that Katrina is just an inevitable culmination of magical Brad Pitt's life is obnoxious and practically derogatory. There's also a mystical hummingbird thrown in for good measure (read: that feather in "Gump").

When Daisy and Benjamin finally have their window of romantic opportunity, the only reason it works is that Brad Pitt is finally Brad Pitt, sans make-up, CGI or bushy eyebrows. For a good twenty minutes, Cate Blanchett's statement comes true; she stares at Benjamin and gawks, "You're perfect." Cue knowing chuckles from the audience. I couldn't really tell you anything about the character Benjamin Button, but I sure could describe in detail all the phases of Brad Pitt's looks. Excuse me if I'm not thrilled to the same blind, sexy extent that Daisy is. She's cartoonishly shallow, after all.

Brad Pitt's physical perfection often informs the kind of rolls he takes, and "Benjamin Button" tries really hard to use this as an advantage. Pitt is so hot he can play an ancient hero, but when he plays a dork it is so funny because he is actually so hot. He can play a supernatural character for the very reason that he is practically supernatural. It is no wonder that Roth and Fincher forgot to include any substance to their flourish. Just look at that face.


Shawn said...

It's probably better to process the movie in parts, though it's obvious you disliked the movie so much you didn't try to process it at all. I do that too, when I don't like a movie, which I admit is seldom. Partly because I avoid movies I can tell I won't like, and partly because I love movies.
I think it's overall a bullshit Hollywood movie that's not at all honest, but it had a few key moments that were beautiful (faintly Jean-Pierre Jeunet beautiful), and a few key moments that were touching. Blanchett holding Pitt as he falls asleep was the most romantic Hollywood moment I've seen in a long while, and at least partly redeemed the slower second half.
Fincher came out after the movie and said he wanted to make a movie about life that you could connect to for at least a 43 minute chunk, one that reflected reality, and so I know he honestly wanted to reach the audience in a personal way. He admitted it was stylized, the camera and the dialogue, and his 43 minute quote reveals that he knows what kind of film he made. I think he even knows was kind of writer Roth is, though he didn't say that.
There is of course an even stronger allegorical current steering Roth's script than there was in Fitzgerald's story. An allegory that I don't believe extends into the Katrina sequence, nor was Katrina meant to be a plot device. The simple fact is that Fincher had chosen New Orleans as his location before Katrina struck, and as he was lucky enough that most of his locations survived the hurricane he chose to shoot there still. This generated the logical question of when the story took place in relation to Katrina. Fincher chose during Katrina. Katrina then takes a symbolic position against the story, and you can think of the storm's presence on the weather map as kind of the water ripples present in other fantasy stories, and as the storm hits the story disperses out of reality. But Katrina takes place outside the main story.
Why the film was told in flashback in the first place is a good question.
I don't think there's the redundancy you speak of until the late second half. Other than that I found his growth incremental.
The love story component was sort of splintered between Pitt/Blanchett and Pitt/Ormond (who you don't mention?). They lack only true passion, typical for epics and especially Hollywood epics, replaced with maudlin desire and ambiguous urges. Of the two, until Blanchett's final moment, the Pitt/Ormond seemed more believable. It's easier to believe in the love that doesn't wait than the love that does. How funny that little table in the kitchen comes to represent an entire love affair.

joe said...

Two things, about the allegory and about Katrina.

I don't think it is true that Roth's script is an even stronger (or more direct, or more singular, or larger) allegory than the Fitzgerald story. I think it essentially is the same level and type of allegory, except transported from the 1860-1920, to 1919-present.

By this, I mean that the Fitzgerald story was basically all one unified thing, focusing on the event not the nuance of character, and Roth tries to do that as well. Roth just amplifies the romantic interest.

As far as Katrina goes, I know it takes place out of the primary story, but by putting it at the end, and by dispersing the story out of reality, you inherently put Katrina in relation to the Brad/Benjamin story. So while the intended feeling is that reality encroaches, I think there is an equal effect of "Oh, if only Katrina didn't happen this kind of romance could still exist." You put Katrina in relation to the story, not vice versa, so it bothers me that the hurricane seems like the inevitable culmination of Brad/Cate's story.

I think so many scenes are redundant, namely when we are watching him shortly after he was born and growing younger. Scene after scene of his body changing in the opposite direction. After one scene we get it. Also redundant: the lightning joke.

joe said...

also: I think I had my sassy pants on for this review. I'll try to reel it in.

Shawn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shawn said...

Right but the process of reverse aging and the intended allegory are separate trajectories.

Fitzgerald's story may operate as a allegory from a critical distance, but aside from the Spanish-American War and later WWI (which is mentioned for comical purposes and doesn't really tie into a theme) his story is more concerned with Button's life story. Oh he dances, which probably held social commentary for the time.

Roth actually attempts to build emotional bridges between the two. As in Fitzgerald was a prose writer and Roth fancies himself a writer of epics. One of the horrible things about most epics (time spanning films that overlap historical events is what I mean, I don't know if there's a better and more precise word for them) is that they inject impersonal, unchangeable events with false meaning. I suppose this is supposed to be cathartic but it's deceptive and I think callous. It's also what I'd blame for you misreading the inclusion of Katrina. Let's take for example the aforementioned use of dancing. In Fitzgerald's short Button begins to dance as he becomes younger/older as a participant in a contemporary national interest, secondary to that is the distance building between him and his wife. In the movie, when Blanchett falls into a Broadway kick, Roth (who I think has a retarded sense of morality, potentially) uses that to express youth's apathy and Blanchett's naivety (because why would she want to dance and live out her youth?). Another example would be how in the original story Button spends his youth at school, while in the film his adolescence is given a manifest battleground.

As for him growing up: that's awesome, and very funny. Because if you think about it, most movies will rush through the childhood (if it's not a movie explicitly about childhood) and spend all their time in the adulthood/death scenes. This movie spends all its time in the childhood and rushes through the death scenes.

And the lightning joke was what's called a running gag. The Marx brothers used them, Woody Allen uses them, and Jarmusch uses them. Among others.

Shawn said...

He's working w/his dad at the point in the story that corresponds to WWII in the film, not going to school. I just remembered. Not as separated by dissimilarities between allegorical orchestration as what I had suggested. The point remains.

joe said...

A running gag, but a not-funny gag with no variation and no real pay off.

Actually, the gag points towards a problem that we both have with the movie: that epics, and particularly Roth, "inject impersonal, unchangeable events with false meaning."

The gag jumps into the 'silent era' early film look, and later when Benjamin leaves the film gets manipulated to look like 'seventies cinema.'

It bothers me when film (or in this case, digital film) is digitally manipulated to look like an older idea of film. I could go into a kind of esoteric, formal rant about this, but I'll hold off. It basically comes down to two things: you have a giant budget, and your epic-ness is infusing not only events with false meaning, but film itself.

And I see what your saying about the bridge between the personal and the event between the two allegories. I think, though, that the focus on Benjamin growing up would have been funnier, more personal, and less redundant, if it wasn't just focused on the event side of things. Roth may be focusing on Benjamin's childhood, but Benjamin is still not really a character. He's just a product of the event of his birth. There isn't anything given to us in those scenes besides a gimick: he's old, but he's young. He drops a fork on the table, but he has a hearing aid. He flexes his muscles in the mirror, but he's old and has white hair. These are all just archetypal events that every kid has. If you remove the fact that he's old, you have basically a facade of every kid ever. That, to me, combined with the various emotionless nods to moments in history, tears down the bridge between the allegories.