Thursday, January 1, 2009

"My name's Benjamin Button. People call me Benjamin Button."

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett
Rated PG-13
Review by Scott Johnson

Benjamin Button is, at different times, an old man without a past and a young man without a future. What a lonely and confusing way to go through life, so ripe with opportunities for exploring how time and age distort our view of ourselves and how the world views us. It is surprising, then, that the movie does not play up this fact more in the film itself. The young Benjamin in the old man's body seems a bit naive about sex, but the old Benjamin in a young man's body just seems like a young man. This is somebody who has lived an extraordinarily lonely life and I just don't think that we get enough of a sense of that.

In fact, I think a very similar movie, minus a few clever moments, could have easily been made without the the curse of backward aging at all. Perhaps the middle-aged looking man who has an affair with Tilda Swinton could have been a naive teenager--The Reader, anyone? That would have been creepy, you might say--although certainly less creepy than the seven-year-old octogenarian who has a crush on a 5 year old. Or it could have just taken place later in his life.

Button, unfortunately, plays it safe and avoids the creepy tension screaming to burst out of this material. Remember the movie Birth, where a young boy claims to be Nicole Kidman's dead husband--that was a movie that didn't avoid the creepiness and was much the better for it.

It cannot go without saying that the photography is incredible. Pulling off a scene of Brad Pitt as a shriveled up little old man not only makes you wonder how it was filmed but makes you realize that the entire film medium is past the stage of the impossible. If you have enough money, you can put anything on film and make it believable. Better yet, mind-boggling special effects do not have to result in blowing stuff up but can be used to create unique moments of drama. Technically speaking, Button excels in this area and I suspect there are many scenes where we do not even know that it is happening.

One of the problem the movie faces, though, is that it is far too long. The writers must have been trying to give us a sense of the full scope of the man's life, but that means there is far too much meandering and waiting for something to happen. There are quite a few good moments--Pitt's affair with Tilda Swinton, for example, when we first get a sense of Benjamin as a man. But we wait too long for those to occur. In the meantime, the bitter loneliness this character must have faced is not given nearly enough play, especially at the end.

The film was written by Eric Roth, who also wrote Forrest Gump, a very similar film in many ways. This movie has less to say about history than Gump--which is fortunate--but Forrest lived through extraordinary events that he could not comprehend. It made sense that he was somewhat unaffected and just wanted to find Jenny, but it makes less sense here. Benjamin is a man of ordinary intellect and ought to learn great things out of life, but he floats through history just like Forrest.

Other elements of the earlier film seem to be echoed in in the current one--instead of Lieutenant Dan, we have Captain Mike. Instead of the feather floating through the wind (like Forrest), we get a hummingbird who appears after the death of a man with a hummingbird tattoo--and then again later. Huh? There is also something about a clock that goes backward, for no apparent reason, unless of course you did not realize that Benjamin was aging backward, which you did.

The movie itself is narrated by a character on her death bed in modern day New Orleans--just before Hurricane Katrina hits, of course. Why? "It's symbolic," the writer might say. But it is not really subtle and does not appear to shed any light on the story or the characters--other than to reinforce that a simplistic approach was taken instead of providing deeper insights into our lives and the passage of time.

These are some of the more annoying aspects and I don't want to dwell on them too much or make the film appear utterly worthless. Much of it is worthwhile--the performances are all well done and there are some fine moments. I think a very touching two hour movie could have been made out of this material--approaching Benjamin's life with broader brush strokes, showing how fleeting and momentary our lives are.

Some of that material finds its way here, but there is just not enough to justify the film's length.

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