Saturday, January 03, 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

I'm not the biggest David Fincher fan, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like the obvious ugly duckling among the director's brief, but powerful, body of work. From Alien 3 to Zodiac, Fincher's revealed an obsession with the procedures humans follow in order to either fit in, protect, or solve questions. Visually, Fincher's always kept one hand in the seedy, and another in the technically adept, a combination that I can admire from far away but that's left me cold in widescreen. The exception was Panic Room, a film worthy for not only pulling off Jared Leto in corn rows, but in giving a fresh face to the siege movie, turning Jodie Foster into a timely post-9/11 paranoid American and strong single mother.

Maybe this has been kicked around on internet movie sites already and I've just missed it, but, after watching Benjamin Button, I'm curious about something myself. Did David Fincher just lay down for a contractual obligation, OR, was this a pet project he'd been wanting to tackle for some time? Because you coulda shoved cotton in my ears for a year, taken my virgin senses to a screening of Benjamin Button, then told me it was directed by Ron Howard and I would've believed you. But I knew it was Fincher, and from those early trailers with the creepy looking Brad Pitt midget that carried old skin and a sex offender grin, there was a convincing Fincher-esque quality to it.

Then there's the hook of the story itself: a male infant that is born physically old and ages backwards. This isn't as lame as it sounds. There's a buzz to be gotten from these Big/Vice Versa type of scenarios where the inner being of a child is shifted into the body of an adult. Benjamin Button just pushes this to the extreme. A seven year old in a eighty year old body... a seventeen year-old in a seventy year old body... a ninety year-old in a two year-old body.

This could make for some interesting insights. How much is our perception of old age built on the idea of youthful beauty? As Benjamin (Pitt) replies to an offer of sympathy about being burdened with an elderly body, "Being old isn't bad". But no, Fincher simply slips in some convenient and easy yoinks! jokes about penises, incontinence, and an old-man who can go all night without the assistance of Viagra.

It's not that Benjamin Button is ultimately so terrible, because it's not. Brad Pitt is markedly cute throughout, Taraji P. Henson is huggably loveable, and while Benjamin's adventures aren' t as guilty pleasurable as Forrest's, they do fine. But when the best compliment you can give to a movie is to say that it's "harmless" (aka a passable treadmill movie) then you're just tolerating mediocrity again, and the last thing our movie culture needs now is more mediocrity.

But truly, you really gotta start wondering what a year like this could mean for an institution like the Oscars. With media moving online, wider catalogs of movies becoming more accessible, and Best Picture honors seeming more like a momentum-killing kiss of death towards a film's legacy than an "ageing classic" badge of honor (know anybody who really admires Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Crash, Shakespere In Love, or American Beauty as "great" anymore?????) maybe this traditional year-end punctuation ceremony is nearing its death. Uh, yeah, sorry... forget that.... because as Woody Allen alludes to in Annie Hall, the ego-driven elite will never forgo an opportunity to get lit, hang out in a room together, and tell each other how awesome they all are.

It makes me wonder how aware they are that the only reason we watch anymore is to get together with friends and play some really fun, self-made, Oscar party games. I'm proud of the way Americans have adapted in order to make something useful out of the annual five hour narcissism exhibition. We gave up on the Academy Awards entertaining us, so we figured out a way to do it ourselves... and they're just the pawns.

21 comments:

Matt said...

I'm not sure tccobb feels much like a ron howard movie... it would have been much more overstated had that been the case.

Rick Olson said...

You know, the more I think about "Button" the more I agree with you (gasp!). It's a big ol', beautiful, mediocre Oscar-bait of a movie, and will probably do well.

The special effects are pretty good, but they are creepy. Your line about "sex-offender grin" is a classic.

The thing is, it's 2.5+ hours went by without making much of an impression on me. It may be the shortest review I'll ever write.

debbie said...

I enjoyed Frost Nixon much more then Button!
Button was nothing more then a shallow love story. Idealized chicken soup for the soul.

Go see Frost Nixon! Yes, directed by Ron Howard, but very character driven.I didn't think it was a sappy tear jerker.

Craig said...

I see more Frank Darabont (not my original idea) than Ron Howard, but you're right, it couldn't feel less like a Fincher film than if he hadn't really directed it.

I also wondered in my review what on earth drew him to this material? I think it may simply boil down to a cineaste's desire to paint on a large canvas and use cutting-edge special effects. There's probably a great untold story in the more-or-less friendly pissing contest between A-list directors (Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Zemeckis, and now Fincher) over blazing new terrain. "I'm the first to use 'performance capture!" "So what? I'm using groundbreaking digital-3D!" "Yeah, well I just turned Brad Pitt into a pinup boy again - you got served!"

Craig said...

(Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron, Zemeckis, and now Fincher)

Should have added Peter Jackson to that list.

One could also argue Frank Darabont morphed into David Fincher this year with The Mist.

ryan said...

I still think "Chicago" is pretty great.

hokahey said...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a lot more than “mediocre Oscar-bait.”

Fincher creates a fanciful sepia-toned world of love, loss, regret, making amends, war, and death. In this world, Benjamin Button lives life as an oddball Everyman in search of the meaning of life. He wonders why he has to be different. He wonders about destiny. Was he destined to be with Daisy, the little girl he instantly falls in love with when he is a shriveled, balding “old man” of twelve?

Benjamin sets out to stack up his own life’s experiences when it is clear that his youthening will set him off from the other boarders in the rest home. He goes to sea with a tugboat crew. He sees his comrades cut to ribbons by tracer rounds arcing through the darkness from a German U-boat that is rammed by the tugboat. He sees a hummingbird in the middle of the sea. He first tastes vodka, caviar, and the special excitement of a relationship that involves sitting up late with Elizabeth Abbott, an eccentric Englishwoman portrayed wonderfully by Tilda Swinton. Together, they savor the tranquility of the hotel late at night when all the guests are asleep. This first love affair is seen in a series of sequences that poignantly suggest an effort to arrest time and savor every moment. In another stunning sequence, he learns how serendipity works to bring about a fated tragedy when a Parisian taxi driver, moving through a series of fateful chances involving random delays and mishaps, hits Daisy and ends her dancing career.

Artful cinematography frames the dazzling, lucid moments of a life lived backward: a cup of tea in a hotel kitchen; the sunrise over Lake Pontchartrain; a cruise in a tugboat with the girl he loves; a NASA spacecraft blasting off into the clouds over a romantic sailboat. Tragically, as Benjamin nears death in infancy, he loses his memory of these wonderful moments but he senses he has lived his backward life to the fullest. In his last moments alive, when his infant eyes look up into the eyes of the aging woman he loved, perhaps he acknowledges “what a long strange trip it’s been.”

Fox said...

Matt-

I gotta say I love tccobb as an acronymn for Benjamin Button. Either as T.C. Cobb or TcCobb. Sorry about that aside...

But you're right, Ron Howard wasn't probably the best name to use, as it would have been much more overstated. Comparing T.C. Cobb (!!) to say A Beautiful Mind and there is a big drop off.

Rick-

We agree?!? Uh... maybe I need to reevalute this movie.

But on the serious... I thought the special effects were pretty well done too. Usually something like they pulled off with Benjamin as a 10 year-old would look goofy, but it was petty seamless, I gotta admit.

Fox said...

Debbie-

I tried to see Frost/Nixon this weekend, but so far it's only playing at one theater here (why!?!... it's freaking Ron Howard!!) and I couldn't find the right time.

I will say I am a little skeptical going in b/c Frank Langella's impersonation of Nixon makes me laugh in the preview. I'll try to suppress that so I can be fair though.

Craig-

Yes, Frank Darabount is an excellent call. Dang! Look at my commenters bringing their A-game today! Maybe I should change the review with a little asterix give Craig credit at the bottom.

And I really have no desire to watch all of Benjamin Button again, but I WOULD like to hear Fincher's commentary on it... if he does one. It could offer some answers to our questions.

Fox said...

Ryan-

I kinda fought for Chicago when it came out b/c I thought people were kind of unfair to it. But when I watched it again I didn't care so much. I think the editing got to me a bit. HOWEVER... I do still like the songs*

*When I saw this for the first time and told Kat that I liked the songs and wondered who wrote them. She said "Um... you know that's a famous musical, right?". "Oh...".

Fox said...

Hokahey-

I like your take. In fact the way you sum Benjamin Button up makes it sound like a wonderful way to experience it... I just didn't see it that way.

But you mention a moment I liked, and that was the gunfire on the ship. It shook me pretty hard b/c even though you know it's coming, it's such a shift from the dominating quiet tone of the movie.

Also, I like the question of "Would it be more fruitful if we lived our lives backwards as Benjamin did?". Would we get more out of life? Would it be a better way to experience it? It's just that, for whatever reason, I didn't feel Fincher really explored that too much.

bill r. said...

I haven't seen "TC2OB2", so I don't have an opinion, but I did read the Fitzgerald short story on which it's based, and I thought, at the time, that I knew why Fincher picked this material: the last paragraph. He wanted, and thought he knew how, to visualize Benjamin's fate. From what I've read, though, he doesn't visualize that at all. Is that true? Because that was the whole story, to me, and I can't fathom a film version that shies away from it.

Fox said...

Bill-

I should read this short story. As you know I am a poor reader of fiction, but when "short" is description I think maybe I can do it! Half Price Books here I come!

Also, love the "TC2OB2". I would love to mix that into a conversation with someone. "Yo, you seen that T C two O B two sh*t yet?"

bill r. said...

Fox, it's so shot that it's a short story. And look, here's a link to it, for free:

http://www.readbookonline.net/read/690/10628/

Now you can read it and tell me what Fincher does with the last paragraph.

Fletch said...

Love how you're seemingly all over the board here but still maintain your Foxian coherence. :)

The part that rung true for me so much was your bit about tolerating mediocrity - it's a theme I've noticed in many of the films I've seen recently - from 7 Lbs. to Button to Gran Torino, all average or worse films telling us nothing new, and only Button telling it to us in a visually engaging way. I guess that puts it at the top of the mediocre heap.

Luckily, I think there are more than enough better-than-average (and more!) films this year, so I'm not nearly as worried as you as it relates to the Oscars. The games are fun, though.

Fox said...

Fletch-

After I compiled the movies I saw this year, and counted the ones I liked to loved, it was surprisingly higher than I thought. Higher than most recent years.

That makes me feel good that quality stuff is still coming out of Hollywood. Yes, def lower than in the past, but up a little, I think, from previous years this decade.

But this Oscar season is just bizarre to me. I think we'll see quite a few changes from the Globes noms to the Oscar noms.

I plan to see Gran Torino this weekend, and Seven Pounds sometime soon, and it will be interesting to bring those into the discussion.

Fletch said...

Haha....trust me, Seven Pounds is nowhere near the discussion.

MovieMan0283 said...

Interesting post on a movie I've yet to see, and a show I groan through but watch year after year (mostly for sentimental reasons, I suppose).

Incidentally...66 comments?! Man, you have a lot of readers...

Fox said...

Incidentally...66 comments?! Man, you have a lot of readers...

Ha! I think that might be deceiving. I think it's the same 8 of us commenting over and over again. :)

coffee said...

it was a little weird to see an old version of Brad Pitt's face pasted onto a kid's body, but i guess that's why they call it a "curious case"

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