Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a trifle; a slight and forgettable short story that can barely sustain its far-fetched premise over the course of twenty-odd pages. David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an epic; a lavishly produced love story that takes almost three hours and over $150 million dollars to tell its tale. Something is obviously wrong with this picture. There's not enough substance here to fill out a prestige movie of this scale and size, so screenwriter Eric Roth has dusted off his old Forrest Gump template; stretching, inflating and generally abusing Fitzgerald's poor, defenceless tale until it fits the mould. That the resulting film is overblown nonsense – replete with dumb homilies, tugs at the heartstrings and a significant hummingbird – is perhaps to be expected, but I was surprised at just how bad The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is nonetheless. After all, this is a David Fincher film, and having established himself as a filmmaker who loves traversing the darkest avenues of the human experience, one wonders what he's doing at the helm of this bewildering bucket of schmaltz.

The one thing Fincher brings to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that nobody else could is his extraordinary facility for visual effects. No other filmmaker is exploring the potential of digital cinema in the way Fincher is, and in his last film, the riveting policier Zodiac, the most marvellous thing about his CGI work was the way it melted invisibly into the picture, immersing us in the period and never calling attention to itself. The computer-generated trickery in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a lot easier to spot, but no less impressive for that, and a large proportion of Brad Pitt's performance in the title role is actually dependent on it. In Fitzgerald's story, Benjamin was born as a fully-grown old man (we are mercifully spared the details of his birth), complete with a long white beard and a full vocabulary, who gradually grew younger over the years until he became an infant. In this version, Benjamin starts out life at the right size but the wrong age – a newborn with the physical attributes of a geriatric – and his shocking wrinkled appearance prompts his father to abandon the child moments after his birth, leaving him to be found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the proprietor of an old people's home.

"You may be ugly as an old pot, but you still a child of God," Queenie insists as she raises Benjamin as her own, and as he gets older, his body starts to get younger, with Pitt's expertly made-up head being grafted onto the body of small actors to achieve the effect. It really is the most amazing thing, you can't see the joins, and the incredible work put in by everyone involved helps to make this bizarre premise feel real, but under the surface they can't illuminate Benjamin's heart and soul. What must it be like to live life this way, growing and maturing in one direction but physically aging in reverse? The Curious Case of Benjamin Button never gets to grips with this idea, and we spend the whole movie observing Benjamin, instead of getting inside him. In fact, Benjamin himself seems to be an observer in his own life at times; he's one of the most maddeningly passive protagonists to grace the screen in many years, and Pitt doesn't have a clue how to play him.

This must be a hell of a challenge for an actor – do you play Benjamin's emotional age or his physical age? Pitt never seems sure, and his performance frequently slips through the gaps. Life just happens to Benjamin, and he reacts to everything in the same fashion, gazing benignly out from the screen, and delivering various Gump-like pearls of wisdom in the same drawling monotone. Pitt can be a fantastic, alive actor – watch his slow-burning menace as Jesse James, or his hilarious scene-stealing turn in last year's Burn After Reading – and he has done great work with Fincher in the past, but Benjamin Button is a part that plays to his weakest points. Mind you, what actor could spin gold from the kind of dialogue Eric Roth writes? Here's a small selection of his gems, merely the tip of the iceberg: "I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is." "Your life is defined by its opportunities... even the ones you miss." "It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realise what's changed is you." "I'm always lookin' out my own eyes." – And Benjamin isn't alone in spouting these sugary musings; everyone he meets has some of their own to share ("We're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?").

This is, by any measure, rubbish, and it's horrifically structured, with the action being continually interrupted by the contemporary framing device, which finds Benjamin's lifelong love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) dying in a New Orleans hospital as her daughter reads from his diary and postcards. This a bad idea, partly because Blanchett is almost unintelligible under her thick makeup (Jared Harris is similarly incomprehensible in his small role), but also because it interrupts whatever flow the narrative occasionally manages to establish, and instead the film ends up resembling a thinly connected series of vignettes rather than a fully formed narrative. Of course, Fincher brings a sense of cinematic verve to some of these individual sequences, notably the stunning U-Boat attack on Benjamin's tugboat, and Claudio Miranda's cinematography is beautiful in every scene, but at times the director's discomfort with this material is almost tangible. This project needed a filmmaker more in tune with Roth's sensibilities, or at least someone who can do sentiment with more natural grace than Fincher (the rights were once with Steven Spielberg, who might have been ideal). When Fincher indulges in some of the picture's most whimsical aspects (like the Amélie-style montage that leads to an accident) it feels forced, and the most emotionally loaded moments in the film feel phony.

With David Fincher directing this film I would have expected it to show some kind of interest in the messier, more complex consequences of Benjamin's life. Wouldn't it have been interesting to see him as a child engaging with other children, rather than just Daisy, who adores him from their first moment together? What about Benjamin's sexual identity, when he presumably has the libido of a teenager in the body of a 70 year-old (we never follow him into the brothel for his loss of virginity, and when the younger Benjamin goes to bed with the older Daisy, the film tastefully fades away)? Why couldn't Benjamin have bumped into just a few antagonistic characters along his path, rather than an interminable parade of kind-hearted souls willing to dispense life lessons? The most galling misjudgement is the climax, when – after two hours of watching Brad Pitt de-age convincingly – Benjamin's trajectory suddenly reverses again, and he is played by child actors for the final twenty minutes, completely disrupting the continuity of the character. What does Benjamin make of these developments? We don't know, because he develops dementia at this point.

Surely the film's own internal logic demands Benjamin eventually grow into a man-sized baby played by Pitt in the final third? Wouldn't that have been a fascinatingly perverse way to end this weird drama? And as a treatise on the way the aging process ultimately reduces us all to a state of infancy, wouldn't it have been far more powerful than the confusing and senseless change of direction the filmmakers have opted for? Unfortunately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button never strays from the middle of the road. It has no interest in real human emotions, real ideas, politics, race or history (the egregious shoehorning of Hurricane Katrina into the film aside), and it only exists as a showcase for its own skin-deep achievements. At every step of Benjamin's journey, I counted another missed opportunity, and lamented the mismatch of a genuinely exciting director to third-rate material. I expect the film will win a handful of Oscars, and people will rightfully marvel over its technical qualities, but will anyone care about this stupendously empty movie in five years time? Or even one? I very much doubt it, because for all of the resources squandered on it, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is ultimately a film about nothing.