Friday, January 9, 2009
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button **1/2
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Elias Koteas, Jason Flemyng
There is something unnatural about watching a child die, which is why from the minute this film sets its premise you just know it's headed for a difficult place where you will be either deeply moved or disturbed.
Benjamin Button (Pitt) is a man who is born old and ages backwards, meaning that he will die young. As a baby, his father (Flemyng) conveniently abandons him in a nursing home where he is raised by Queenie (Henson in full Hattie McDaniel mode) who looks after the residents of the house.
He meets Daisy (Elle Fanning) with whom he develops a crush all the way until she becomes Cate Blanchett (who not so curiously gives the film's best performance).
The romance between Daisy and Benjamin is supposed to give the film its epic feel and while it certainly makes for some of the most compelling drama the plot offers it isn't completely able to shake off the awkwardness of the movie.
Penned by Eric Roth as an extension from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, the screenplay takes only Fitzgerald's twist and crafts something completely new, a sort of requiem for the 20th century shaped after a classic Hollywood epic.
Roth who also wrote "Forrest Gump" seems to be the go-to-guy for stories about life-through-the-eyes-of-out-of-the-ordinary-men and with Benjamin is never able to justify what exactly makes the world through his eyes seem worthier than through anyone else's.
Why is the story relevant only when the narrator isn't ordinary if later the film will try to convince us that what matters the most is what we have inside?
The suspension of disbelief is awkward because the audience at first takes for granted the fact that nobody seems to make an issue out of Benjamin's situation.
Nobody ever thinks it's weird that a little girl and an old man are hiding under a table or that this same girl will grow old and have feelings for a child. If nobody makes a deal out of it, why to even use the gimmick, why not make Benjamin an average Joe?
Roth aims to make the doomed lovers approach the one that makes the story easy to sell, but with David Fincher directing this never materializes, especially because they never make it through to the fact that if it wasn't for the growing backwards novelty, there isn't much of a story to tell here.
With Claudio Miranda's cinematography which bathes everything in a golden fablesque light, the look of the film makes us view at the cruelty of death under a honey dipped innocence.
The movie also becomes a benchmark for visual effects and makeup (Pitt's entire performance is owed to these departments), as the digital process used to manipulate Pitt's look is pure cinema magic and we never doubt what we're seeing is actually happening.
Production wise, it's a real treat for the senses as every aspect is carefully taken care of, but at the center of it all lies a colliding contrast between what we watch and what we feel, or don't feel.
Fincher who is more cerebral becomes fascinated with the essence of time and visually makes a motif out of the way it passes us by (a beautiful prologue starring Elias Koteas encompasses what the latter two hours and forty minutes never come close to).
The director who is an expert at creating moods goes for the least expected road here and practically obsesses with the need to control time.
When the plot becomes too extensive, it's as if Fincher is so fascinated by controlling the lives of his characters that he just looks for more ways to manipulate their lives.
While in "Zodiac" he practically recreated the frustration of not getting where you want, in this movie his reluctance to accept the passing of time and what can be taken as fear of death makes him completely detach from his material. The film like Benjamin has the wrong soul in the wrong body.
While Roth is giving us conventional, somewhat contrived and lazy, storytelling (including tacky Hurricane Katrina references), Fincher is tackling on to the metaphysical so much that he refuses to even care for his characters.
What is the point if they too will go away once the projector stops running?