Brad Pitt living life backwards as Benjamin
Button in David Fincher's "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" based on F.
Scott Fitzgerald's short story. The film opened today. (Photo:
THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"The Curious Case
Of Benjamin Button"
He's Growing Younger By The Hour, With Life And Death Flickering Backwards By
The Minute, All 167 Of Them
Omar P.L. Moore/December
Triple-bad alert: Brad Pitt has appeared in three disappointing three-hour
movies about life and death. In "Meet Joe Black" for three whole hours he
played Death itself. In
"The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward
Robert Ford", which was close to three hours, he was the unfortunate Jesse
James. Now Mr. Pitt unwittingly illustrates the axiom that bad things
really do come in threes with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", in which he
plays the title character, a man who lives out his life in reverse, being born
with a degenerative disease which makes him emerge fresh from the womb as a
wrinkly old baby, becoming progressively younger on the outside while aging on
the inside. Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, director David
Fincher, the architect of the new film that opened today across North America on
this hallowed holiday, has taken a most unusual and risky turn in his career.
As always, Mr. Fincher's visual style is in full effect, but it is somehow
supplanted by special effects and mediocre acting. Of the film's
participants, which include Oscar winners Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett, only
Taraji P. Henson ("Talk To Me",
"Smokin' Aces") seems to inject a semblance of
soul and life into this lifeless film.
The bad news is that Miss Henson, whose character Queenie stumbles into a
new-born Benjamin Button literally by accident in New Orleans in 1918, isn't on
screen much, if at all, past the first hour and 50 minutes, which is probably
beyond the time where many viewers of this bloated epic will likely check out --
or at least check the time on their watches. This is because Mr.
Fitzgerald's short story, as translated to film by screenwriter Eric Roth, is a
long story on the big screen -- an inexorable two hours and 47 minutes -- and
for much of that time -- actually all of that time -- "Benjamin Button"
feels like an almighty albatross, weighted down by the rigors of its own
self-grandeur. The film swings back and forth like an oddly crooked
pendulum between the "progressive past" of Benjamin's life in reverse and the
modern-day remembrances of Benjamin Button by actress Julia Ormond's hospital
bedside character Caroline and an older, bedridden Ms. Blanchett as Daisy.
Multiple characters narrate the film, with voice-overs occasionally arriving as
Fragmented, dismembered and grinding almost to a halt, "Benjamin Button", which
spans some 80 years of life lived, is about life fulfilled no matter what the
circumstances. You can be hit by lightning more times than you care to
remember. You can be as ambitious as a swimmer of the seas of continental
Europe. As long as you live life to the fullest and take something from
that gift, you are in good shape. Mr. Fincher hammers this point home many
times to a fault in what is a sometimes lugubrious film, with Donald Graham
Burt's elegant production design ala Tim Burton's films -- yet it is this very
ostentatious aspect that helps stifle it. Granted, Alexandre Desplat's
music score is absorbing and masterful, but when all is said and done "Benjamin
Button" plays like a marathon fairy tale of miracle and melancholy, with visual
motifs and narrative strictures that closely resemble those in "Forrest Gump".
(Mr. Roth also wrote the screenplay for that film, in which a feather makes its
presence felt early on; here, it is a hummingbird.) In the interest of
cohesion and fluidity, it seems Mr. Fincher wants to fit a whole lifetime in
real time into three hours, a feat so incredible that its inevitable failure is
beyond obvious. You can almost hear the narrator of a certain daytime soap
opera intone: "like sands in the hourglass, these are the days of our lives."
Precious days (and hours) of time that you can't have back.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is indeed curious. For all its
impressive make-up and emphasis on the curios and sideshows the film isn't about
its main character; rather the distinct and more interesting people that Mr.
Button encounters on his travels -- the loves, the friends, the losses, the
anonymous souls along the beaten path called life. Mr. Pitt inhabits
Benjamin Button with charm and tenderness, but perhaps by design we don't get a
sense of the totality of his performance due to the ever-changing being he
inhabits. He projects only fragments of maturity and discovery in Button,
not necessarily by his mere presence as the character but more importantly
through the travails of other characters. Button is an observer rather
than a participant. In this way Mr. Pitt's absorption of the role instead
of his complete ownership of it is a modicum of benefit to both character and
story, which by itself is static enough without Mr. Pitt's or Mr. Fincher's
help. Mr. Roth's unwieldy script though, is the main culprit (as are the
film's editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall). Mr. Roth has written or
collaborated on some very good ones ("The Insider", "Munich") but hits a nadir
here. In fairness,
Robin Swicord, who wrote and ably directed
Austen Book Club" last year, co-wrote the "Button" screen story with Mr. Roth.
Somewhere along the line there was potential and possibility with Mr. Fincher's
new film, but "Benjamin Button" extinguishes its own fireworks show before its
fuse is ever fully lit.
Finally, a montage sequence hurts the film, which should have avoided the need
for a third hour. The montage looks more like a retrospective of Mr.
Pitt's film career than a presentation of the evolution or arc of the title
character he plays here. In the montage you see traces of "Spy Game" and a
Redford-esque persona, a flicker that resembles "Seven Years In Tibet", a flash
evoking "Legends Of The Fall", and even a "Meet Joe Black"-like moment.
"The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" had been kicked around in Hollywood as an
idea for a big screen adaptation for decades, according to the film's production
notes, and now people everywhere will have a three-hour film to kick around.
Ultimately, "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" may grow and resonate with
greater appreciation a generation or two from now, but in the here-and-now of
Christmas Day 2008, sadly, lots of money, great talent, skill and filmmaking
proficiency have been frittered away in minutes, not moments, as part of the
film's tagline insists.
With Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Tom Everett, Elias Koteas, Madisen Beaty and
Elle Fanning. Cinematography by Claudio Miranda.
"The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture
Association of America for brief war violence, sexual content, language and
smoking. The film's duration is two hours and 47 minutes, and feels like
four. At theaters now across the U.S. and Canada.
Copyright The Popcorn Reel. PopcornReel.com. 2008. All