Friday, December 26, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (**)

Directed by David Fincher


The short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", is a good story, not a great one. It's a charming tale about a man born 5'8'', with the mind and body of an 80-year-old man, who grows younger and younger. Fitzgerald peppers the story with wit, and is an almost satirical statement about age and social classes. It is succinct and pleasant, but as David Fincer--a filmmaker I admire greatly--brings this story onto the big screen, he makes a film that is as laborious as it is ambitious.

In this version, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) isn't born as an old man, but as a baby with a lot of wrinkles (??). His mother dies in childbirth, and his father, horrified by the sight of him, places him on the steps of a retirement home. There, he is found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a young woman who works in the home, and sees Benjamin as a miracle that she should take care of. She raises Benjamin as he gets bigger, but continues to possess the features of an 80-year-old man. Surrounded by many senior citizens, Benjamin is very much in his element, except that he is inexplicably beginning to grow younger.

The biggest moment in his life, is when he meets a young girl named Daisy. She is precocious, and is very much interested in Benjamin. Benjamin has feelings for Daisy as well, but his older appearance makes it difficult. By the time he is a teenager, Benjamin looks about 70, and begins to work on a tugboat, where he travels to different parts of the world, continuing to write to Daisy to explain his journey. While traveling he meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), in which he experiences his first true romance, but it doesn't last very long.

He returns home in his late 20's, now looking like a man in his 50's, and finds Daisy (Cate Blanchett), now a woman and performing as a dancer on Broadway. Daisy is beautiful and still precocious, flirts with the much younger Benjamin, but her youthfulness finds little use for him. Then Benjamin reaches his 40's, and he's looks as much, and he and Daisy are finally within the same range. They finally experience the romance they both wanted for so many years, but as Benjamin gets younger, and Daisy gets older, life becomes difficult.

Fincher is a wonderful filmmaker. Both Se7en and Zodiac are masterful pieces of cinema that are either discarded as shallow horror, or completely ignored by the public altogether; and there are plenty of moments within Benjamin Button that showcase his masterful talent behind the camera, but he and screenwriter Eric Roth seem to have no idea what was so good about the original story to begin with. Why take a funny story about life, and transform it into solemn story about death?

The movie moves like molasses, and at times seems like it's doing so on purpose. As Benjamin grows younger, he is forced to face the tragic aspects of life through a very different window. We are meant to feel like we are living life with Benjamin, but last time I checked, all of us are moving forward in time. Eric Roth adapted this screenplay much in the way he adapted another screenplay, Forrest Gump. He is obviously a fan of tracking the timeline of his characters by referencing moments in history, but with Gump the moments go hand-in-hand with the story, and just seem dropped in for no reason in this film.

Brad Pitt has always seemed to like starring in long, strenuous storylines that have all to do with his own characters (Legends of the Fall and Meet Joe Black, anyone?). Pitt is good in this, but it's hard to judge a performance that is all CGI and make-up half of the time. Blanchett is fine as Daisy, who seems to be nothing more than a blank slate without any real character arc. The biggest boost of humanity within the film comes from Taraji P. Henson, playing the soulful, pious woman who raises Benjamin. She seems to be the only actor in the film who possesses the humor of the short story.

Benjamin Button is a cinematic achievement technically, but offers nothing in the form of a humane story. If I'm sitting in a theater watching a movie that seems twice as long as it actually is, then I hope that it at least has something to say. This film isn't really saying anything worthwhile, other than "It's sad when people I love die". Synecdoche, New York is a film from earlier this year that covers the same premise, but does it in a much more entertaining and original fashion. You could spend hours discussing the various themes in Synecdoche, but I doubt that anybody will walk out of Benjamin Button discussing anything other than how long and arduous it is.

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