Friday, January 9, 2009
Was there a more eagerly anticipated post-summer movie than David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Your intrepid writer was himself caught up in the emotional trailer, set to the strains of Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. Never mind that its evocation of one of my favorite films, Malick's Days of Heaven (1978), makes me an easy mark. Or that it is based on a short story by one of my favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or that Fincher is one of my favorite directors. The film seems to be tailor-made to appeal to the cinema cognoscenti. And is it any coincidence it was released on Christmas Day, allowing it to play for the requisite week in 2008 for it to be nominated come Oscar time? I was crestfallen after reading Glenn Kenny's review of the film, especially because of the close association he makes between this film and Robert Zemeckis' detestable Forrest Gump (1994). Then it all came flooding back to me. The last time I was this bowled over by a trailer, it had been the one for Gump. I finally saw the movie, despising its facile look at history through the eyes of a dim-witted, folksy, ping-pong champion. But most especially I hated Zemeckis' use of flashy, self-conscious visual effects in scenes like the ones where Gump interacts with JFK or John Lennon. Just hire a frickin' actor for Pete's sake. His insertion of actual footage of these legends actually pulled one out of the film, not into it. The trailer for Button was designed in much the same way as the one for Gump, spotlighting much of the same emotional drama and visual spectacle. Compare both below: As Mitch Lewis, points out in a comment posted after Kenny's review, Eric Roth's screenplay even seems like an attempt to rework his own previous script for Forrest Gump. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is a man aging in reverse, born old, getting younger over the course of the film. He falls for a childhood sweetheart, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who he leaves behind for adventures on a tug boat in the high seas during the war. But with Fincher's usual touch of darkness, the film works to transcend those limitations. While cockeyed optimism is the flavor of Gump's outlook, Button has a melancholy pessimism enshrouding it, a certain inevitability if you will, that is haunting. Death and the respective shape it takes for each character hangs like a spectre over the film. Whether it is Daisy, on her deathbed, telling Benjamin's story in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina rages outside; or the tugboat's Captain Mike (Jared Harris) defiantly driving his vessel into the rapid-firing shells launched by a German U-boat, Button's unasked question concerns how one faces certain death with dignity. In fact, Fincher's often fog-shrouded images usually underscore the serenity of a peaceful death, echoing another iconic Pitt-starrer, Meet Joe Black (1998). Here are some examples: Like Joe Black, Benjamin is a cypher, a receptacle for all the lessons he gathers on his journeys from the many lonely travellers on their personal journeys to their end. Pitt's portrayal of Benjamin is wonderful, capturing the poignancy of old age and fusing it with the vitality of youth, in much the same way he did in Joe Black. He beautifully projects childlike wonder when he first joins the tug; at the loss of his virginity in a brothel; at the deep connection he makes with a diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton) while on his journey. But there is a certain cover-boy quality of blankness he is also able to tap into as the youthful-looking Benjamin rapidly declines towards his cruel death, so effective in a scene where he reunites with Blanchett late into the last third of the film. Benjamin's ultimate fate, performed by a mere infant (with the help of some stunningly subtle visual effects) is most unkind to this gentle sojourner. I repeat, the visual effects are subtle. Unlike Gump's intrusive depictions of real-life figures, the magical disappearance of wrinkles on Pitt's face (and the careful preservation of his real-life scar) are easy to overlook. Similar effects of youth have been misused by lesser directors such as Brett Ratner, in the opening scene of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Fincher wisely uses this effect only in low-lighting situations that both add to the mood and help diminish the dissonance of the effect itself. Yes, there is the generous use of fanciful-looking CGI to create fake landscapes. But it seems to fit within the confines of the tone Fincher is trying to set with this modern fable. If the film has a fatal flaw it is that it seems a little too calculatedly mindful of Oscar. Like the Frankenstein monster that was Forrest Gump, Button sews together all the qualities that usually appeal most to the Motion Picture Academy: epic scope and length; life-spanning story; protagonist with a disability; unrequited romance; heartfelt reunions, etc. This gives the film a certain polished sheen that somehow renders it a bit hollow. But Fincher's visual artistry, and Pitt's impressive range serve to lift The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, if not to the level of a cinematic crown jewel, then at least to that of a minor gem.