Saturday, February 28, 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Elias Koteas
Director: David Fincher
Runtime: 166 min.
Rating: **
Genre: Drama

        Here’s the deal. Flat out. The premise here, of a person aging in reverse, is quite simply too much for someone like Mr. Roth or Mr. Fincher. The former is merely a screenwriter and the latter merely feels an illustrator. These are professionals, and certainly not artists who can create a pondering bit of art. There are issues in the film which are staring right at us but neither Mr. Roth nor Mr. Fincher recognize them or even comprehend them, and if they do, they certainly do not acknowledge them as they leave the narrative of their film in what intends to be a fatalistic tone but instead feels like auto-pilot mode. This isn’t a profound work of art and it most certainly isn’t a film worthy of any serious intellect. Not even by a country mile. It is merely a crazy idea that snapped right into the brains of somebody and they decided to indulge themselves in posting before us an elaborate what-if question. That is it. Cut and dried. The imagination, the pondering, the fallacies all to be done by us. The film would have zero role to play in that exercise.
        And no, the film is not high on ambitions either. So let us lower our expectations, if any, and clear the table and discuss the flaws of the film, and maybe we might arrive at a better way of approaching the premise. And while we are at it, let us extend out generosity to ignoring the numerous Gump references for it is the same Mr. Roth we’re talking about. If you would want to dwell you would want to visit here, or here. But that way lay no philosophical resonance for both films really have nothing profound to say. Only that Gump was a moving film and it moved, and this is not and this does not.
        The flashback tool here is a diary. Mr. Roth, taking a cue from the biggest romantic successes of the past decade – Titanic and his own Forrest Gump­ – meshes together the flashback POVs so that when there’s a gap in Benjamin Button’s (Mr. Pitt) narration Daisy (Ms. Blanchett) pitches in. The present is a dead-smack-in-the-middle-of-Katrina New Orleans, and the place is a hospital where a super-wrinkled Daisy lay on her death bed, presumably. She has her daughter Caroline (Ms. Ormond) on her side and her reading of the diary is the excuse to kickstart the movie, which for most part is Benjamin’s side of things punctuated intermittently by Daisy’s side.
        Let me cut a brief picture of Benjamin’s early life so that I can make my case. He was born to some folks right at the dawn of WW I, when his mother died on childbirth and his father upon catching the first glimpse of his super-ugly ultra-wrinkled body immediately picks him and decides to drown him. Doesn’t turn out that way for fate has other plans, and at that very moment a cop on patrol flashes his light. The father runs the cop pursues, and the father turns into a dark alley, which leads him, as fate would have it, to an old-age home. He runs away. Everything upto this point is so mechanical and feels so written that one might be reminded of the smooth but fast flow of Amar Akbar Anthony. Some misguided soul might interpret that as a tone of inevitability. It actually is a film that is merely illustrating the page with no life in it. Evidence to my claim lay in the lifeless and scripted reaction of Benjamin’s father Thomas (Mr. Flemyng) upon seeing his ugly baby for the first time. This is where a filmmaker comes to the fore and transcends the words on the page into a moment of life, but here we see the words merely being converted and maybe even trivialized into an image.
        Benjamin is taken in by Queenie (Ms. Henson), the caretaker of the old-age house, and there he grows, or un-grows, surprising everybody who assume he is afflicted with a sickness and would die a premature death. He meets new folks, old folks, who come to the home, stay for a while and die. Death is a part and parcel of everyday life around here. You got to appreciate the poetry, howsoever amateurish it may sound. Being born around death. This is the kind of commentary on life that gives art a bad name.
        He learns words, then sentences, and he learns everything we do about life. He learns about girls, meets Daisy, expresses the usual wonder about meeting the most beautiful creature in the world, and we realize he is well of his way to live his life, and his inevitable death.
        I wouldn’t divulge anymore secrets and I don’t need to either because this is quite an unimaginative script. One given to convenience rather than honest or any measure of insightful exploration. As we realize early Benjamin isn’t exactly being rewound through time. He is not unlearning. With him we aren’t really moving in the other direction. Mr. Fitzgerald’s story was of a man who was reversing both from inside and outside. That is a profound question. Here Mr. Fincher and Mr. Roth suck a major chunk of the gravity of this what-if by limiting his predicament to the outside, while on the inside he is still aging and experiencing like us. It is a terrible shame for they aren’t even posing a good question. So, at the end of it we do not necessarily have that much of a curiosity in Benjamin for his case is rather shallow. If there exist any doubts contrary to my claim have a look at the ending and see how conveniently the film defies its own little logic and attributes the characteristics of a little infant to Benjamin.
        What’s even more significant to note is the manner in which the film has its answers all ready. Rather than understanding a life, it goes about indulging in pretentious sermonizing. Through its beautifully fulfilled images (but strangely hollow) it already is preaching us to realize the significance of living in the moment and stuff like everybody is a curious case. It is appearing to be wise when it is only evading some much needed thinking and introspection. Summarizing is another thing that gives art a bad name.
        Look, as a race we’re crippled by a significant lack of imagination. So when we envisage aliens we imagine them as ourselves, humanizing them and lending them attributes that might otherwise exist only in us. What Mr. Fitzgerald has envisaged was a condition that is not entirely comprehensible to us. By lending him the same emotions and psychological complexities (of whatever few there are) the film is only trivializing him. There’s a relative velocity at work here the measure of which is way beyond the film’s understanding. A clever decision would have been to actually make the story of Benjamin Button a case. That is, to actually alter the vantage point of the narrative from I to Him. The awe factor could have been used, and the audiences’ imagination could have been stoked no end. To position us as the curious bystander and not him. It could actually have been an intellectual experience, with the film raising questions on our behalf and searching for answers throughout, rather than pre-answering it all. Look at the way the film shoves into our faces its remark of how funny fate can be via a scene involving a car mishap. In its tone and its details it feels inspired from the opening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Magnolia, but it feels horribly out of place.
        It gets the episodic structure right. We don’t really notice the changes in people we meet everyday, and nor do they in us. That way the film finds an excuse every now and then to evolve Benjamin on his reverse trajectory, and escape any difficulty on showcasing gradual change. The special effects and the make-up, as well done as they are, do fall apart in places. Ms. Blanchett's skin often feels as glossy as that of a brand new DVD with its plastic cover still intact, ready to be peeled, and the wrinkles feel way overdone. You needn’t look any farther than the old Thomas and see his make-up stick out. The major problem is that of the older (young in age) Benjamin and the manner in which his eyes blink. Like a fish. I remember Gollum unsettled me, and this one here felt like that.
        And when I invoke Gollum here, I discover that I might have more reasons than the eyes. Like than Jackson creature who is obsessed only with his precious, Benjamin here isn’t interested in anything other than women and sex. During all other experiences he feels removed. There’s no sense of wonder in him, even in places like Murmansk or beautiful Paris. He is the middle of the sea where bullets are being exchanged between his tugboat and a German U-Boat and still his reactions feel strangely cold. Does Mr. Fincher want to imply that Benjamin is inherently inhuman? He is capable of love, you see, but a major part of his life is drenched in low self-esteem that seems largely unexplored. For that matter there’re weird issues all over the map that the film simply evades by restricting Benjamin’s case to the exterior. And by inherently making him like us, the film suffers from a contradiction that it cannot find its way out of. Do I sense any kind of tension in the way the scriptwriter perceived his story and the filmmaker perceived his film? Is Mr. Pitt onto something that they both have overlooked? I don’t know. Or as I said, maybe it doesn’t even know it is in the middle of one. The way I see it is only a smug quest for mediocre drama. And somehow interpreting Benjamin’s life as a sum total of the women in his life. Equating a mother and a wife that literally is kinda dull. Somebody should give these folks a sense of humor.
        It is a beautiful film nonetheless. Special effects have seldom been used for a better purpose. One sure might be reminded of Forrest Gump. A chilling night in Murmansk and an aerial shot of Paris is breathtaking. Drifting around in the open sea is serene. Who cares if it feels empty or that Benjamin doesn’t really express his wonder? Mr. Fincher sure does know how to compose and fill a frame. It is a pity there was a better material. I wonder how Kubrick would have approached this subject. And how Hanks would have played it. One of the several questions that are on my mind right now. Pity the film doesn’t ask any of them.
        Oh yeah one more. Do Benjamins dream of Scarlett Johansson?

4 comments:

!Teq-uila Del Zapata said...

couple of times, i feel that i am contradictory to what i observe, whereas at times ur point of view being right, falls on the opposite side of mine. I didn't like valkyrie much, i mean I have read a loads abt third reich and all american movies make German look like dumb fool, even some of those books are too baised or have those Allies oriented point of view, few of them which made sense to me are bridge too far, bridge at river kwai, longest day and full metal jacket, all other are highly amercanised version. I sometimes hate Tom cruise for that "I am the studd" look he gives out of the blue. As what i understand, giving that kind of attitude to a General of third reich is not the thing. you cannot just bypass a General of Panzer division or for that matter u cannot just assume any post or order and stand like as if you know the damn thing inside out? Tom cruise fail to do that thing miserably.

OTOH, I like Benjamin, for many reason, there are many subtle things, ok, yes brad pitt at times suck, but Cate Blanchette has been fabulous and the idea is fresh, ok yes at times as you pointed out it has not been explored that well and in a way your analogy with ghollum is apt. But movie feels good and entertaining.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

The movie is so not entertaining. One of those few, for me, where I was tempted to approach the FORWARD tab.
All the things there to learn about life kinda felt like an afterthought.
and yes, it's very difficult to relate or identify with anything like that. It's not that I'm not open to novel ideas, but it's just a mess.

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

As you mentioned the film's tone seems inspired by the opening of Magnolia. I thought only certain part(rather sequence) was. That what if.... accident. That's it.
That's the thing. It's so scattered and uneven and DULL.
The wonder Button should have been is lost in other so called truths about life. That's a shame.

Atrisa said...

Started well, was quite intrigued by the plot and was watching in anticipation how they would've handled it. They digressed and how.

Perhaps I'm getting it all wrong, perhaps the movie wasn't supposed to be the way I imagined it but I was atleast looking for something that touches my heart, induces a tear, share the helplessness but they never gave me a chance. Maybe Ben was written to be a strong character but I was looking for a softer and more vulnerable side that wondered why he was created the way he was; fight it, scream it, shout it. Instead he just took it as it came, as he disappeared into a child's body. There were way too many perhaps and maybes that kept me distracted.

Second half of the movie did not particarly interest me (as infered by the number of times I minimized my VLC window to see how much of the movie was left) But the scene when Daisy asks him to spend the night with him but Ben refuses really touched a chord, thats it, that one. Cate Blanchett acted that scene beautifully, I really felt it as a woman who knows how if feels to be rejected.

After watching The Reader I am being unjust to every other movie that I have seen after that :)