Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Curiously Hollow Yet Curiously Haunting "Benjamin Button"

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

directed by David Fincher
starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, others
LOOSELY based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A curious case indeed, “Benjamin Button” is a study in contradictions: a three-hour movie that feels long, but not as long as it is; a gorgeous romance that feels oddly detached; and a fantastical conceit developed by a screenwriter with a sentimental streak (Eric Roth, who also scripted “Forrest Gump”) and a director with a cruel one (David Fincher, the man behind “Seven,” “Fight Club,” and “Zodiac”). The result is a film that seldom fails to engage interest but also ultimately fails to strike any deep emotional chords. Yet it lingers in one’s memory, which in the end may be the only kind of resonance that matters.

“Benjamin Button” spins its tale from the slenderest possible thread of source material: a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald in which the titular protagonist is born an old man and spends the rest of his life growing younger until he dies an infant. The story is one of several in which Fitzgerald uses a flight of fancy as a vehicle for both pure whimsy and social satire, but in which the whimsy remains by far the more memorable aspect. Perhaps for that reason, the movie strips away virtually all satirical elements; indeed, it retains almost nothing of the original other than the name and the basic premise.

In this rendition, Benjamin Button is born in New Orleans at the close of WWI, a baby boy with the wrinkled visage and physical ailments of an old, old man. His mother dies while giving birth to him, and his father, repulsed by what appears to him a monstrous freak of nature, deposits him on the doorstep of an old folks’ home, where he is found, adopted, and tenderly raised by one of the caregivers, Queenie (a warmly appealing Taraji Henson). As Benjamin’s body grows (advice: don’t scrutinize the logical holes in the reverse-aging process), he also becomes gradually straighter, stronger, and less decrepit, allowing him eventually to find work as a crew member on a tugboat that travels all over the world. The movie ends up taking on the structure of a picaresque narrative, following Benjamin’s far-flung, decade-spanning adventures and amours, and above all, his ever-evolving relationship with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a sylph-like dancer whom he first meets as a young girl but who can only really meet him “in the middle,” for a finite period of time, as his lover.

Visually, the film is beautifully realized, even if—or perhaps because—much of it doesn’t feel remotely real. A storm-tossed sea, a snow-covered street in Siberia, a bohemian backstage party in New York, a placid Lake Pontchartrain at daybreak, all come off looking like paintings or something out of a dream; a pivotal scene in which a too-young Daisy tries to seduce a still-too-old Benjamin Button is silhouetted and backlit like a balletic sequence out of one of those 1950’s MGM musicals. Most artistic of all is the makeup, lighting, and who knows what other tricks that allow both Blanchett and Pitt to appear, at opposite ends of their characters’ lives, as miraculous reincarnations of their twentysomething selves, their pristine beauty untouched by any lines or furrows. (Far less successful is the attempt to create a dying 80-year-old version of Daisy by burying Cate under several pounds of “old woman” makeup.)

The performances anchor the fantasy somewhat without ever quite bringing it into a realm of tangible, gut-wrenching emotion. Pitt does his best, but his affect tends to the blank and impassive—to be fair, in large part because Benjamin’s inner life, other than his love for Daisy, remains something of an enigma. Blanchett isn’t given much more to work with, yet she somehow draws more out of her character, particularly as Daisy grows older and is forced to confront the consequences of their diverging paths. Even so, what has the capacity to be a tragic romance only ends up feeling, at most, dimly poignant. Nor does the film’s framing device, in which the aged Daisy tells her daughter (Julia Ormond) Benjamin’s tale from her hospital bed, help ground it in any greater emotional immediacy. The cuts to the present day (well, 2005) merely slow it down and break its flow, self-consciously emphasizing that the story is being told against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina for no reason than I can discern—unless it’s to hammer home the meaningless mantra, repeated throughout the movie, that “ya never know what’s comin’ for you.” Roth, who has several quite intelligent screenplays to his credit, including “Munich,” “Ali,” and “The Insider”, but who perhaps unfortunately will always be best remembered for a famously facile comparison of life to a box of chocolates, does the film no favors whenever he reverts to this kind of twee folksiness.

Still, something about “Benjamin Button” is bound to stick with you. Perhaps it’s those lovely, delicately lit images of dewy youth juxtaposed with creeping (or receding) decay; perhaps it’s that fleeting Russian interlude with the great Tilda Swinton as Benjamin’s first love; perhaps it’s Daisy’s anecdote to her daughter of the story of a clockmaker who built a clock for the New Orleans train station that would only run backwards, as a gesture of grief for the son he lost in WWI—a clock that becomes an obvious yet still haunting metaphor for Benjamin’s life. Perhaps it’s that from beginning to end the film is a surprisingly somber meditation on mortality—the key to understanding Fincher’s involvement. Throughout his career, Fincher’s been obsessed not so much with death as the human response to the imminence of death. Here, that response is much more muted than we’re used to seeing in his previous work, but it’s also an exploration into uncharted territory for him: the territory of gradual, irreversible loss. “Benjamin Button” lacquers over the more frightening implications of this progression (or regression), but they’re still there underneath, peeping darkly through the sleek outer coating of romantic fantasy.

GRADE: B+

2 Comments:

Blogger Monkey said...

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

1:06 AM  
Blogger lylee said...

It's actually been growing on me, the more time passes.

1:27 AM  

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