Thursday, January 08, 2009

Benjamin Button's Back Pages

“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
- Bob Dylan (“My Back Pages” 1964)

(Dir. David Fincher, 2008)

“I’m seven but I look much older” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) says in his early old age upon meeting somebody new. He is, of course, not kidding. He was born a wrinkled wizened man in his 80’s, albeit the size of a tiny baby, so his curious case is that he is aging backwards. 

His tale is told through the recollections via his letters and writings from the deathbed of a former lover (Cate Blanchett) to her daughter (Julia Ormond) while the hard winds and rain of Hurricane Katrina pound her hospital window. He appears through the help of seamless CGI with the face of Pitt grafted on a child’s (or little person or such) body as he is brought up by New Orleans nursing home caretakers (Taraji P. Henson and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) after being abandoned by his ashamed wealthy father (Jason Flemying).

Adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, the tale has a familiar FORREST GUMP-esque sweep which isn’t surprising being that it was co-written by the same screenwriter – Eric Roth. As Button grows younger he falls for Daisy, first played by Elle Fanning (Dakota’s sister), whose grandmother lives in the nursing home. 

Button goes to sea working on a tugboat (again GUMP) under the wing of crusty Captain Mike (Jared Harris) writing his love at home from every possible port. He has an affair with Tilda Swinton as a married British woman in Russia, fights in World War II, and inherits his father’s fortune all while still pining for Daisy who has grown up to be an elegant Cate Blanchett. Their relationship is obviously doomed or at least destined for extreme sadness but they still give it a go.

The narrative is handled so delicately that it’s as if it might break. As our hero gets younger the film seems to lose its already fragile grasp on the character. A sense of whimsy flows through that’s so light and airy that the film feels at times like it might float away. Also the digital trickery can often distract. The early scenes with Button largely crafted by CGI effect, while flawless executed, are hard to embrace because the gimmick overwhelms the emotional response. When Button appears to Daisy as a younger than he is in real life Brad Pitt by way of the marvels of modern make-up, she tells him “you look perfect” which is true but again the scene barely registers as anything but a pretty picture.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a lavish over-sized coffee table book of a movie. The accompanying text may be sorely lacking but it’s a visual feast and much to its credit it doesn’t feel like it’s just shy of 3 hours long. Being a fan of much of Fincher’s previous work (especially FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC) I found this to be his most blatant exercise of style over substance and I’m not forgetting PANIC ROOM. From the first frame that depicts the Paramount logo rendered in shirt buttons to the fleeting final shots, there is much to admire about this movie if not fully love.

Still, TCCOBB is a worthwhile watch even as a technical triumph over an emotional one and it’s definitely got a few deserved awards in its near future. I did actually get emotional a few times for it but I yearned for more joy to be involved; a poignant pathos seemed to be all it was going for. Though, in these troubled times that we all are desperately trying to outgrow, maybe that’s just about right.

More later...


Chuck Williamson said...

Yes, I definitely agree--in many ways, I think the (admittedly weak) script was somewhat ill-served by Fincher's involvement, as he seems to be trying too hard to compensate for the script's shortcomings with his trademark visual panache. He should have worked harder to tweak the narrative and tighten up some of the sag in its middle-section--but instead thought his usual collection of stylistic tics could make us forget that the movie itself wasn't all that great.

I think I disliked this movie more than you did--but I nonetheless agree that it was a complete exercise in style-over-substance.

Fletch said...

Love the coffee table book analogy. Quite fitting.

And I'm pretty much 100% in line with you on it.

If only it were The Young Case or The Yearning Case, then its acronym could be TYCOBB...what a missed opportunity to link it to a baseball player...for no reason in particular. Stupid F. Scott. :)