Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Like Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth, a beloved director has come back with a story of a man who begins aging backwards, and it's a disappointment. I love David Fincher- after eating the shit sandwich he was handed with Alien3, he made some excellent, stylized films- Seven and Fight Club, the serviceable Panic Room and The Game, and the excellent police procedural and period piece that is Zodiac. Now he's back with another period piece fantasy based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man born old, who eventually un-ages into infancy. With a screenplay by the guy who gave us Forrest Gump, we have another film about a joke stumbling through history.
But the similarities begin to snowball. The film is endlessly narrated by its main character, who puts on a rather bad Southern accent. They are both men whose age belies their naivete, who are innocents of a sort. Instead of giving us conversations, we get Benjamin telling us what they talked about. He showers us with platitudes like, "that was the first time I'd been kissed by a woman. It's something you never forget." He's a child no one would want, but is raised and loved by someone who sees beyond his infirmity, and he lives an unlikely life, traveling the world and meeting all sorts of extraordinary people. He leads a charmed life amid historic events. He even walks with braces at one point.

The make-up is fantastic but a tad uneven- at some point it seems that Fincher expected the audience to be crying out to see Brad Pitt's mug without wrinkles, and he looks a lot younger, just with white hair. This happens when he meets the always excellent Tilda Swinton, who plays the wife of a British minister in Murmansk. She and Ben have an affair after many nights of tea, where he listens to her and seems knowing and sympathetic, when he's just innocent. This part reminded me of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner in Being There. And I missed when Tilda left the movie.
The film has many enjoyable scenes- it's hard not to be engaged by the brief scene during the Second World War, but then it ends with something so smarmy I wished I didn't know that the Forrest Gump guy wrote this. A man with a tattoo of a hummingbird on his chest dies, and shortly after, a hummingbird shows up like a feather on the wind in a very improbable place. It's the kind of thing I can't believe Fincher didn't cut out of the script. A man named Button who made buttons is buried with a jar full of buttons. It's framed by a woman on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina brews off the coast. What does it mean? Is it supposed to be deep? I'll see Troubled Waters if I want detail on that disaster, not this insulting Hollywood hat-tip.

The movie is not that bad; it's a decent, if overlong fantastic drama about ... I'm not quite sure. Is there some sort of wisdom to be gained by seeing a man age in reverse, when he still hasn't the wisdom of age? He's got the worst of both worlds. One amusing point is that Tilda Swinton looks like an older Cate Blanchett, both "all knees and elbows" redheads; and Cate once again turns into Katherine Hepburn as she ages. Two actresses I adore, taking a back seat to Forrest Button, playing his "Jenny" and following the whims of the plot instead of being characters and following their own. I must say the second half of the movie is less exciting, but more enjoyable and less smarmy than the beginning. We know how it will end, and there's no real meaning to its premise; I made the mistake of reading Ebert's review before watching it, and I think he sums it up well when he says that Fitzgerald's story was a joke, and this is a drama based on it. We begin life in diapers and we wind up back in them if we live long enough. But this is the first 3 hour movie explaining that platitude.
At least we'll be treated to The Curious Case of Benjamin's Butt-Cheeks if the porn industry has any gumption.

3 butt cheeks out of 5

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