Monday, January 19, 2009

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’

The most curious thing to me about “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is why it’s getting so much praise.

This is the type of movie that will make you think about it afterwards, but in all the wrong ways; the more you ponder it, the more it falls apart. Credit that nifty trick to screenwriter Eric Roth, who plagiarizes his own Oscar-winning material by essentially re-presenting “Forrest Gump” in a slightly different—and much lesser—format.

By now you’ve all heard in broad strokes what this film is about: Brad Pitt plays the title character, who is born with the characteristics of an old man (wrinkled skin, arthritis, etc.) while still a baby; his body ages in reverse as he grows, well, older. The story unfolds just like “Gump,” as we follow Benjamin through his life as a series of flashbacks told by a present-day narrator. Some of the experiences Benjamin encounters are straight out of Forrest’s box of chocolates:

—He’s raised by a single mother in a communal home
—He has trouble walking
—He falls in love with a girl when they’re just children, but she moves away to experience the world
—He hooks up with a surly older man who shows him the ropes while the two set out to sea on a boat; this includes his first sexual encounter (hello, Lt. Dan!)
—He becomes independently wealthy, through no real doing of his own
—And the woman he loved as a child comes back to him later in life—for awhile, anyway

I think I could even live with all this heavy Gump-lifting, but unfortunately the one element “Button” doesn’t borrow from Forrest is his heart. What made “Forrest Gump” such a triumphant film was not just the way Roth and director Robert Zemeckis worked the title character into so many historical events, but how much we ended up loving the man, and how all of his life’s events led him to what ended up mattering to him the most: his son. The best, most memorable scene in “Gump,” to me, is right at the end, when Forrest talks to his dead wife, his dearest Jenny, about their son; there is no such moment in “Benjamin Button.”

The film provides a fascinating-at-times tale that ultimately leads nowhere, other than a waterfall of tears—the final half hour is so depressingly sad, it’s like Roth wasn’t satisfied until he had exhausted every last option for twisting the knife in your heart. It comes off as all the more manipulative, though, because unlike Gump, Button leaves no legacy behind, other than pain and heartache. I got to the end of this film and wondered, “What was the point of all that?”

What props this “Curious Case” up, of course, is the exceedingly fine production, direction, and acting on display throughout from every corner. Leads Pitt and Cate Blanchett are excellent, and director David Fincher delivers the kind of arresting scenes that have defined his career and made him one of my favorite filmmakers. It is certainly an impressive feat of technical wizadry to watch Pitt age in reverse. The talent infused in this movie from everyone but the writing staff turns a deadweight D+ script into a somewhat likable film with enough high points to garner a C+ … just as long as you don't try and think too much about it along the way.

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