Thursday, January 8, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

David Fincher once described directing a film as being akin to trying to paint a picture with a 500-yard-long paintbrush manipulated by 100 people who you attempt to control by standing off to one side and yelling things into a bullhorn like "3% more blue!"

Sounds daunting. Let's see how he did with his lengthy paintbrush this time.



The Curious Case of Banjamin Button (d. David Fincher)


Benjamin Button is born old and grows younger as time passes. You know. Like the way Dick Clark did before the stroke.

As World War I -- once erroneously billed as "The War To End All Wars" -- grinds to a halt in 1918, a blind clockmaker constructs a timepiece that runs backwards. He claims that he did it in the hope that time could reverse and all the boys who died in the European fields of The Great War might rise up out of their graves and return home. That bizarre wish is not granted, but the clock's appearance coincides with the birth of one Benjamin Button, an infant afflicted with all the infirmities of old age -- arthritis, cataracts, brittle bones -- and abandoned at birth by his horrified father.

Benjamin is fortunate to fall into the care of Queenie (a formidable Taraji P. Henson) who knows something about old age since she works in a retirement home. Queenie loves the strange child like a son, even as he swiftly grows to resemble a little old man, wheeling about the home with the other little old men, the genuinely old little old men.

Benjamin meets the girl who will be the love of his life, Daisy, when they are both children chronologically, though he is physically ancient.

And so it goes throughout David Fincher's latest opus, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Time passes. Benjamin -- oh what is the word? -- youthens. Yeah. I'm gonna go with "youthens." Daisy ages normally and the two become age appropriate for one another both chronologically and physically somewhere around 35.

Both head out into the world and leave each other's company for a time. Benjamin signs aboard a tugboat headed by Captain Mike, who fancies himself an artist, and winds up on the fringes of World War II, while Daisy becomes a true artist, a world reknowned ballet dancer.

And I think that experience of the artist is what the film is trying to get at. Artists see things differently from the rest of us. They experience life less as a participant and more as an observer. It's almost as if time itself works on them in a unique manner.

Captain Mike insists to all that he is an artist and he has the self-applied tattoos to prove it. But the overwhelming majority of his time is spent in the pursuit of a mundane activity. Daisy is the traditional artist, rising in her field only to have time and accident strip her of her unique gifts.

Benjamin is different. He is an artist and the mere fact of his life is his art. It's an interesting notion.

But it's also the problem at the core of the film that ultimately sinks it. When your life is your art -- at least in Benjamin's case -- that means there's no creative drive. Benjamin never engages with the turbulent times he lives through. He never appears passionate about anything, We're told he loves Daisy, but he doesn't seem to have much problem walking out of her life, something he does several times. You can ascribe a kind of zen sublimity to such (in) actions, but they don't make for a terribly affecting film story. If this guy ain't gonna care about what's going on around him, why should I?

In the lead role, Brad Pitt shuffles along, even when he's young and vigorous, calmly taking note of the world around him and then passing by. Admittedly, this may be the most singular acting challenge in the history of film. What is a man like when he ages backwards? What would be his reactions from one moment to the next? I quibble with Pitt's choices here because they don't give him the chance to truly connect with the story (and thus keep us from ever connecting with the story we see through his eyes), but it's not like I have a better idea. This may well be exactly the way such a man would behave. Who can say otherwise?

On the aging forward side, only Queenie displays any real fire, caring for Benjamin with palpable ferocity. Cate Blanchett is willowy and distant as Daisy -- we see her as Benjamin sees her, idealized, not quite real. Tilda Swinton breezes into the film as a bored aristocrat who indulges herself in a fling with Benjamin, then leaves as quickly as she entered. When her story pays off late in the movie in a rather wonderful way, I remember wishing we had spent the intervening time with her, rather than staring quizzically at the title character.

Benjamin Button's case is a curious one, indeed. It's one for the medical textbooks. But not quite interesting enough for the big screen.

2 1/2 stars.

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