Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of why Benjamin Button Fails

Last year, before one of the worst movies of the year, I saw a teaser trailer for what looked to be one of the best movies of the year. The trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looked sumptuous. A tale of a man aging backwards through some of America's most interesting time periods. I then sat through Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being disappointed left and right and constantly thinking "I can't wait for Benjamin Button." Attached to the movie were two of my favorite figures in cinema today: David Fincher and Cate Blanchett. One of my favorite directors and my favorite actress together? Recipe for success. Or so I thought. Sadly, on Christmas Day, my family packed it up and went out to check out the movie and I was nothing short of greatly disappointed. Benjamin Button was the victim of Concept over Character, and when a movie is titled for it's lead character and that character fails to make you care about him, the film ultimately fails.

As most people know, the story is about Benjamin Button who was born on the day that WWI ended and was born an old man. His infant body is tattered and old with arthritis, near blindness and all the conditions man expects is waiting for him in the autumn of his life. He is left on the doorstep of an old folks home. The caretaker there, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson.) From then on, we see a digital old man version of Brad Pitt looking somewhere between himself and Golem slowly get younger. He watches as his friends pass on and as his loved ones age while he grows younger. He lives through World War II, travels the world as a tugboat ship hand and encounters various people in his life, all of which are far and away more interesting than he is. The only constant in his life is his love for the inconsistent Daisy (Cate Blanchett in a waste of talent.) Her character is infuriatingly bratty and treats Benjamin sometimes very well and other times extremely terribly yet he keeps coming back for her.

First major problem was that the story is constantly interrupted to due the narration. It is being told through Daisy's daughter reading Benjamin's diary. Jarring cut backs to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina [rolls eyes] where Daisy is on her death bed [the bed that eats ]. Every time this happens, the action of the story is totally flattened. I understand that this is the device they used to tell the story, but it's ultimately headache inducing.

Second problem was that when you have a concept as high as this one, you are likely to lose out on character substance. Sadly, Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button as a boring, doe-eyed simpleton who has about as much personality as a duck. As much as I would blame Brad Pitt, an actor who can either be dazzling (i.e.- Fight Club, Snatch) or brooding (i.e. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.) I actually would like to blame him for an unconvincing performance but the fact of the matter is he was given next to nothing to work with. His best moments were when he was acting as the Old Body/Little Boy version of Benjamin. He was good at awestruck naivete while being next to crippled by his old man body. But once he started to get older, he had no rebellious spirit or enjoyable character traits. Just a younger body and a weird aloofness about him. The character was so uncompelling that it made the movie drag.

I blame this on the final problem I had with the film: the writing. Where Benjamin Button goes wrong is the writing. Rather than focus on all the small things environmentally that were changing and just Benjamin's physical changes, why wasn't there a focus on those effects on his personality? Why make the character completely flat? Daisy also suffers from massive inconsistency of character. She changes almost too much from time to time. She doesn't even have any attributes that make her attractive minus being gorgeous. If Benjamin was really drawn to her (and vice verca) shouldn't it have been because of something non-physical since in a realistic world, a young, 20 something wouldn't fall for a man who looks like he is 70 something. It just is too much of a stretch. And if the movie is going to trudge for almost three hours, please give them more than just an environmental distance. Make the characters personalities veer in different directions or something. The writer, Eric Roth, also penned Forrest Gump and the similarities are endlessly present. For me, that really holds the movie back. Too much time is given to Old Body/Young Benjamin and not enough in between.

Where Benjamin Button really shines is in the supporting roles. Benjamin's adoptive mother Queenie is a light hearted and wonderfully loving character, who sees beyond his deformity to love and accept Benjamin as her own. Benjamin's biological father, played by Jason Flemyng, is an interesting character, even if his trade is annoyingly cutesy (he makes Buttons.) Jared Harris plays Capt. Mike, the tugboat captain that takes Benjamin under his wing, is great comic relief but, as my sister pointed out, is a funnier version of Lt. Dan from Gump. The best part of the entire film was Tilda Swinton as the woman that Benjamin first fell in love with. Their small time together was the only parts of the movie that really transcended past the conceptual road block and into interesting character developments.

Beyond this, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a beautiful film to watch. Fincher's direction is gorgeous. Cinematography, costumes and make-up are all phenomenal. But when that's the case, you lose a lot on the end of what would have made this a truly brilliant film concept: characters. It's strange to think that this is a Fincher film. From Se7en to Fight Club to Zodiac, this film just sticks out like a dull, but swollen thumb. Although it will be up for various awards this very piss poor Oscar season, you will see it win some tech awards and that is it. Curiously disappointing.

1 comment:

leo said...

DEATH BED!!!!! Nicely done. The first time I spotted Patton Oswald at the UCB theater, he was going off on a rant about that.

I still need to see this, along with, well, everthing. Did you see The Visitor yet? That should get some recognition.