Sunday, January 3, 2010

the sleeping alone review of films: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

summary: Just cut out the middle man and watch Forrest Gump instead.

It’s a strange but true fact that I’m far more likely to post a review of a film I didn’t like than I am to post one of a film I enjoyed. There are, she protests, lots of reasons for this, but that’s a blogpost for another day. Right now I just want to tell you why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is such a bad, bad movie.

I finally climbed aboard the Benjamin Button bandwagon in the dead week between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Since I’m not all that into wistful, you-can-do-it love stories, I was mainly motivated by a desire to see how the filmmakers dealt with the movie’s main conceit: A protagonist who ages backward, Mearth-style.

To the film’s credit, it refuses to shy away from the most potentially ridiculous aspects of this conceit. It’s as brazen in pointing an old-man-baby at the camera as it is in presenting, near the end of the film, a literally baby-faced old man. It does appear that we’re getting better at artificially aging people, too: Benjamin, played with consistent age-appropriate physicality by Brad Pitt, never once looks like a young, handsome man coated in plastic, which is what we've come to expect from any prematurely aged actors after decades of bad special effects. When the 20-something (but 60-ish-looking) Benjamin has an affair with a 40-something woman, he is depicted pitch-perfectly as a thin-haired, disheveled and declining man whose smile belies a boyish inner youth. The affair, and those that follow with comparatively younger women, seem to flow naturally from the radiance, youth, and energy that shine from Benjamin’s eyes and smile, if not his skin.

If you set aside the special effects, though, there isn’t much left. The plot is assembled around so many layers of unnecessary meta-story that the resulting mass of MacGuffins end up feeling like a combination of pointless distractions and the unfortunate side effects of a poorly adapted novel. There’s an ancient lady dying in a hospital as a major hurricane threatens its landfall. There’s the woman’s prodigal daughter, who has apparently returned home at the last minute to say her goodbyes. There’s a blind clockmaker, white, who marries a black Creole woman and whose only son is killed in a far-off war, and who therefore decides to build a clock that runs backward. He gives a short speech about wanting to turn time backwards, then he disappears, god knows why. There’s the black woman who raises Benjamin as her son, and who spends her entire working life employed at a retirement home, god knows why. And there’s a diary, penned by Benjamin Button, which is introduced as his Last Will and Testament. God knows why.

Now: organize all of the above details in order of novelty and interest, then cross off all but the two or three most boring and clichéd and you end up with the only details that actually end up mattering. Then, on top of the hot mess that presents itself as plot, there’s a lengthy and confusing mini-story wherein Benjamin travels by tugboat to Russia, meets a British woman whose husband is a spy, kind of falls in love with the woman and, it appears, carries on a kind of tepid affair of indeterminate length that ends for a vague set of reasons. The sole purpose of this entire intermission appears to be to shoehorn Tilda Swinton into the cast. Which, fair enough. But as my mom put it, It’s…kind of a long movie as it is.

So there you have it: Cool-ish special effects; confusing, slow, overcomplicated and irritatingly intricate plot. Add one more negative: In this film, people are treated as nameless diversions, as things that happen to people to advance the story. Early in the movie, an elderly resident of the old people's home tells Benjamin "We're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?"

Not only is the quote itself inane--love is deepened and refined by the inevitability of loss, but saying we're meant to lose people so we may know how much we love them is putting the cart miles before the horse--but the movie doesn't even care to try to bear this limp aphorism out. Characters come and go, flowing through Benjamin's life like a river, and it's never clear that the loss of any one of them is any more painful to him than the loss of any other. In fact, Benjamin seems to actively avoid developing deep relationships with people, and at a crucial moment he even walks away from someone he loves instead of having to deal with loss. Indeed, Benjamin himself muses that "It's funny how sometimes the people we remember the least make the greatest impression on us." In what universe could that even be possible?

This is a movie that wants it both ways: It wants us to believe that our lives are characterized by the people we love deeply, and it wants us to believe that our lives are characterized by how they are shaped by the people who flow across our paths like buffeting wind--all of them different and finally the same, not a one distinct from any other.

In the end, though, Benjamin Button's biggest crime is that it tries too hard to be Forrest Gump. But Gump did it better: neater special effects, tighter plot, better character development. And lest Forrest be accused of treating people like nameless diversions, I offer the following: Forrest’s excuse was his IQ. And besides, no matter how Forrest thought of the people who flowed through his life, there was always, for him, Jenny. We love Forrest, we root for him, because he loves Jenny, he pines for Jenny, he comes up with ways to pass the time until he can see Jenny again. Benjamin has Daisy, who this film would very much like to convince us is the deep and lasting, abiding love of his life. But at the risk of spoiling the movie, she’s really not. She's another diversion, another way to pass the time, another thing that happens to Benjamin. We're supposed to believe that Benjamin is the hero of the story, but in fact Daisy proves herself to be strong, resilient, flawed but kind. In other words, she's complex and layered, like all good movie heroes should be. Benjamin is flat and shiny, kind of like...a button, I suppose.

Daisy might very well be more of a hero than Jenny, but Benjamin is no Forrest. And this film, despite what you may have heard to the contrary, is not Oscar material.

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