The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (6/10)

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Whatever you do, don’t walk into “Button” expecting anything resembling the psychological drama and horror Fincher’s previous work preoccupied itself with (“Fight Club,” “Se7en,” “Zodiac”). In this movie, Fincher takes a turn towards the decidedly more romantic flowery tragedies of life long love. Though fans of Fincher’s other work may find themselves turned off by his newly discovered whimsy (and I count myself among them), it’s not these differences that make the film a sub par one, but the squandered premise, derivative script, and simplistic attitude.
Young Benjamin was a boy born with a curious disability, coming out of the womb looking like a wrinkly alien baby, showing all the signs of old age as the doctor proclaims that he’ll die in a few days. We learn all this through first person narration by Benjamin himself, as read by a present day Julia Ormond as Caroline, to her mother, a bedridden, wrinkle-weary Cate Blanchett as Daisy. The book is Benjamin’s diary, which Daisy has because she met Benjamin when she was 7 years old, and Benjamin was in his 80’s or so.

Benjamin is born into a retirement community, which you would think would be ripe for the kind of wear, tear, death, and tragedy that it could inflict on a person’s mind, but the script doesn’t touch the material – Benjamin has a buggingly simple-minded attitude about everything – he’s a child in an old man’s body, and he doesn’t really lose a friend till he’s eight years old. Eight? Really? Nobody at all befriended the kid in eight years, and nobody died? And this is only the beginning. As Benjamin continues to age backward, Daisy ages forward, and the two meet intermittently until finally they can connect somewhere around the middle. The script never deals with the social consequences or stigma that could come with this type of odd relationship, except for a few token scenes.

That’s the main problem with Button – it’s simplicity, which is a damn shame, because the actors are, for the most part, riveting. The special effects that de-age Brad Pitt are perfect (though his face does look a little bit like digital dough when he’s old), and by the time he’s reached his “Thelma and Louise” days, your jaw will have dropped a couple of inches. Pitt’s performance itself is good, but like the script, too simplistic – he never feels like a part of the world around him, because he never seems to affected by any of what goes on – he’s merely an observer. Cate Blanchett sizzles, as a woman in love with a boy in a man’s body and as a result, struggling with her own concept of getting old. Tilda Swinton, as a woman with whom Benjamin has an affair about halfway through the movie, is tender, sweet, and tough, afraid of the future and clinging to this strange symbol of youthful age standing before her.

Over the course of the movie Benjamin takes various jobs, sees the world, fights in a war – you know, the usual Americana shenanigans. And if by now you haven’t noticed the similarities to another script by Eric Roth by the name of “Forrest Gump,” then look closer. Pitt even talks in the same thick accent, offering down-to-earth humble advice throughout the movie, has to learn to walk despite a disability near the beginning of the film, and only intermittently meets his love throughout as he goes through time. Heck, the whole thing is even told with flashbacks. (Though Daisy and her daughter are more tedious than the loveable Forrest Gump).

It doesn’t help that the whole thing is three hours long, either. It’s stuffed to the brim with scene after scene that tries way too hard to be the typical Oscar behemoth – and nowhere is this more evident than in the one where Benjamin’s legs are healed – a fire and brimstone preaching black man, in a tent congregation of a couple hundred other “praise JE-sus!” African Americans, calls out the evil in Benjamin’s body and commands him to “rise up!!! Riiiise!” It’s shockingly straight-faced, conspicuously out of touch with its own ridiculousness. These, however, are balanced out by scenes of intense delicacy complimented by gorgeous cinematography, as in one where Benjamin and Daisy leave a party and the camera captures her as she climbs up onto a stage and, silhouetted by the luminescent sky and mist behind her, shows off her dance moves to Benjamin, lazily dipping and twirling. Scenes like that will haunt you and thrill you, but as a whole the movie lacks a lot of luster it could easily have found if Fincher wasn’t so misguided. It’s certainly an ambitious project, and even one of Fincher’s worst movies is still worth watching, though, so yes, if you’re curious, you may as well go check out “Benjamin Button.”

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