Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Pinchbeck Parable

Six more weeks of winter, I see...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the story of a man who is born in his eighties and ages backward. Or that’s what everyone says it does, because it’s not quite true. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, as well as a whole bunch of zeroes and ones) is born, like most, if not – and I’m going out on a limb here – all men, a baby. He is ailed with the infirmities of old age, but he is not born an old man. He is an old fricking baby.

I realise that this is far too literalistic a take on what’s supposed to be a parable, but, Miss, David Fincher and Eric Roth made me do it. The respective director and writer of the film have fashioned from a satirical and sui generis Fitzgerald short story such trite Oscar bait of a picture that it’s hard not to let yourself wander the depths of reality. It’s always a bad sign when your film starts with the bizarre story of a blind watchmaker, and your audience’s mind turns immediately to Richard Dawkins.

Benjamin Button is born on the last day of the First World War in New Orleans. His father is disgusted by his outwardly appearance and abandons him in front of an old people’s home run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, in the only performance worth a damn), who summarily decides to raise him as her own. Considering his condition, a convalescent home is a good place for Benjamin to grow up, and it is there that he meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of his life, whose grandmother lives in the nursing home. The two have an on-again/off-again relationship as the audience has an on-again/off-again relationship with sweet, sweet slumber.

Imagine how the film could have been developed in a slightly more screen-palatable way, i.e. also doing away with Fitzgerald’s original conceit of Benjamin’s being a 6 foot geezer, while keeping the unique nature of the story. Benjamin is born an old baby, but with the intelligence and knowledge of an old man, something which becomes clearer to the rest of the world as he, for examples, says his first word: instead of “daa-daa” or “goo-goo,” the tyke recites William Blake. Then the villagers burn him at the stake.

But, no, Fincher and Roth don’t just want to have their cake and eat it, they also want us to pay for it, and then go out and get them some bloody lemonade – like, pronto! The film is supposed to be a dereistic allegory on mortality, star-crossed lovers, miscommunication, well, any Issue you can think of, but it is played so straight and so literally that it’s impossible to suspend disbelief. But allegories are supposed to have a moral – they are supposed to teach us a lesson. Good luck finding one here. You do get a lump in your throat quite often, only it's not a surge of emotions, it's lunch.

The film lacks the courage of its own convictions. It is also completely bereft of whimsy. We are never treated to how the young Benjamin felt being trapped in an old man’s body – a brief shot of his looking wistfully at a couple of kids skipping rope feels like an afterthought thrown in for no good reason. In a film nearing three hours, you’d think it might be an important part of the main character’s story, but not in this film. His first sexual encounter is with a prostitute, and he hammers away into the wee hours of the night: but hang on, isn’t he supposed to be a 70-year-old man at this point? Fincher squanders another opportunity here – rather than going for a cheap laugh, it would have been much wiser, and truer to the film itself, to have Benjamin unable to perform on that first night. His mind is ready – his body is not. Think of the trauma.

Similarly, the most interesting parts of Benjamin’s tale are skipped over. We never see how a sixty-year old Benjamin, with the body of a twenty year old Brad Pitt, fares in the world. Nor do we witness the decline of his mind as his body keeps getting younger. How did he deal with this most horrid irony? We never find out. Obviously, before he writes his next movie, Roth needs to re-read Flowers for Algernon.

And, boy, everyone has wacky stories - one guy tells of the seven times he was struck by lightning, one woman eulogises about her failed attempt at crossing the English channel, old Blanchett drones on and on about a clock maker – all of which is just drivel. This sort of "wacky side stories in the middle of the narrative that serve no fucking purpose except to show off the writer's sense of self-importance" might have played ten years ago (think Magnolia - an infinitely better movie) - but we are not that cynical anymore. And we’ve also realised how shit American Beauty really was.

Benjamin also gets a piece of the extraneous story action during an interminable ten minute ramble where he relates the story of the seemingly unconnected events that led to Daisy’s being run over by a Parisian taxi driver, leading her to quit her calling, modern dance. Apart from the fact that it is completely unfathomable to even imagine Benjamin could know about all the minutiae that apparently caused the car accident, it is one of the silliest, most meaningless, sequences in the history of cinema. It’s supposed to showcase how destiny has a funny way of sneaking up on you; but instead it just comes across as pleading. If she had not forgot her coat, if he had not stopped for coffee, if I had been there… Whatever, pal. If my aunt had bollocks, beggars would ride.


Edward Copeland said...

I felt something was too cold about Benjamin Button and after I read the original Fitzgerald story, it was obvious to me too. The whole film was built toward tearjerking, sacrificing the satire and rascally humor as a result. It seemed to me they forced it on to the Forrest Gump template (also written by Eric Roth) which also purified an edgier, dirtier character from its literary source when they took him to the screen though at least Gump kept a lot of laughs.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Okay --- So I haven't seen the film, so I can't really comment in depth here....but what a great post. I especially loved the line about how we all know that American Beauty is shit now. Indeed. I remember being a senior in high school and thinking than AB was such an amazing piece of art. I saw it like four times in the theater. Now, I'm bored by its sitcomy approach towards darkly comic subject matter.

I can imagine high school kids thinking highly of Benjamin Button or (gulp) Slumdog Millionaire because of the way they 'visualize' their allegories...

Bah! Thank the film gods we all grow up and learn from our mistakes.

It sounds like Eric Roth owes John Hughes some royalties....wasn't there a guy in The Great Outdoors that always got struck by lightning, and told people about it at the local bar?

Ali Arikan said...

Edward - I agree. The desparate way the film tugs at the heartstrings was incredibly off-putting. That last montage where you see all the characters from his life with Benjamin's tepid voiceover was especially grating.

I think the film could have worked with a more whimsical director (as I also agree in the post). Someone like Michel Gondry (and I detest Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Pants).

Kevin - You remember that bit where Wes Bentley looks at a plastic bag floating in the air and goes off on one? Multiply that by a hundred, my friend.

Ali Arikan said...

Also, shouldn't he have ended up as a giant baby by the end of the film? Kind of like a demented Baby Huey...

Ryan Kelly said...

Of course Fincher couldn't have given us a man-sized baby at the end--- such imagery is too bizarre for the literal minded Fincher, who feels the need to trivialize the fantastical by constantly making it 'believable'.