Feb 8, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [12A]

Dir: David Fincher
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows its title character (Pitt) through his entire life, about 80 years, during which he ages backwards, going from beingg a small child in the body of an old man to a baby with dementia. It’s an ambitious story and, sadly, David Fincher falls flat on his face in it’s telling.

The problems with this film are many and various, but I want to begin with a little praise. Technically Benjamin Button is a marvel. The cinematography of Claudio Miranda is jaw droppingly beautiful, particularly in a wonderful looking scene in which Daisy (Blanchett) dances for Benjamin, but it’s the special effects that really wow. The technology that allows Brad Pitt to play Benjamin for his entire life is absolutely astounding, and, miraculously, you never see the join between the computer, the make up and Pitt’s own performance. This raises the bar in the same way that Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park did two decades ago.

To my endless disappointment, that’s about all the praise that will be on offer in this review, because, for as hard (and as long) as it works to be emotive The Curious Case of Benjamin Button represents three of the emptiest hours I’ve spent in the cinema in recent times. If watching the opening scenes, whose astonishing backward vision of World War One makes you expect greatness, is like meeting a beautiful girl then watching the rest of this film is like realising that she’s boring and dimwitted.

You can’t really blame the actors. Brad Pitt really pours himself into Benjamin, you can feel the effort that has gone into his performance, the hours that he must have put in to subtly change Benjamin’s voice across a lifetime, and the work that must have gone into matching his various body doubles performances, but that’s also the problem, the performance is out there for all to see, and so the idea of the character is lost. Cate Blanchett is likely incapable of giving a truly bad performance, but here she’s bland, more a caricature (thanks to a hokey deep south accent, which Pitt is also guilty of) than a character. Of the cast it’s Tilda Swinton who comes off best, finding many layers to her role as the first woman to love Benjamin (when he looks to be around his mid 60’s), so much so that you wish she had more to do.

Again it’s not the fault of the actors, the huge flaw at the centre of Benjamin Button is Eric Roth’s screenplay.  He’s taken F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 23 page story and turned it into a bitty, episodic, 166 minute movie. The problem is that all there is to sustain those 166 minutes is the central idea. Guy ages backwards, falls in love. That’s it. There’s so little colour, so little character, so little weight. We spend close to three hours with Roth’s Benjamin and by the end of the film all we know about him is that he aged backwards, and loved Daisy, things we discover 15 minutes in to the film. He’s just blank, and a cipher is not fun to follow for so long.

Another strange and irritating feature of the script is its selective sense of history. We begin in 1918 New Orleans where, apparently, blacks and whites lived entirely harmoniously alongside one another and nobody looked twice at a black woman (Henson) raising a white child, or even thought to call that child a freak, despite that fact that he looks to be 80 and ages backwards. We see Benjamin involved, in his ‘60’s’ in World War two, but by the time Vietnam rolls around, and he appears to be about 25, and ripe for the draft, the film ignores the issue entirely. It’s this lack of context and depth that helps prevent the film sucking you in, and engaging you emotionally.

Benjamin’s de-aging is also strangely used, seeming to happen in fits and starts, and being very inconsistent. At one point he seems to lose about 15 years in the space of just 5, and at another juncture he seems to remain 27 for a very long time (probably because it’s then that Pitt is handsomest). It’s distracting as hell, and putting together the timeline takes you out of the film.

All of this is nitpicking though, compared to the one big problem of the film. I didn’t feel anything, didn’t care about the characters, didn’t get wrapped up in Benjamin and Daisy’s epic love affair, and didn’t care about any of it. It’s not as if the film doesn’t try to make you feel it, indeed the last half hour could only be more nakedly manipulative had there been a voiceover by Fincher, yelling, “Cry you bastards”. There’s clearly something wrong when the final image of Daisy, at about 70, holding a baby that is the dying love of her life, doesn’t move you for a second. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a baffling failure, there’s so much talent behind it, and such a promising premise on which to build a moving story, and yet it fails to engage on any level but the purely visual.

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