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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

 

Preview: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

There's no way to watch David Fincher's odd sentimental ode, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, without thinking of its cinematic cousin and spiritual ancestor, Forrest Gump. Like that Tom Hanks blockbuster, Benjamin Button deals with a good-hearted simpleton (Brad Pitt, in the title role) who journeys far and wide to discover overstated truisms about living and dying. Like Gump, Button's got a sweet-but-stern Southern mama (Taraji P. Henson), and an enduring love interest (Cate Blanchett) that accompanies him through the chapters of his life. The two films share a strange magic realism, stretching the bonds of credulity without caution. Most importantly, both films are shamelessly designed to tug the heartstrings of mainstream audiences, while simultaneously appearing highbrow enough to garner some year-end awards.

Benjamin Button, however, is much more fascinating than Gump or other treacly films in this subgenre. (Atmospheric echoes of The Notebook and Titanic also find their way into Eric Roth's lugubrious screenplay.) Its magnetic power, in my opinion, is chiefly due to two artists whose biographies make them an unlikely, uncomfortable match for this material.

First is director Fincher. Widely accepted as a modern-era visionary, his major films to date -- Alien 3, Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac -- are dark studies in humanity, rife with heavy metaphor and duplicitous characters who, in their instincts and worldviews, betray the fragile underbelly of civilization. Fincher is, on the surface, a terrible match for the soporific platitudes and feel-good moralizing of Benjamin Button. But that incongruity fuels a palpable friction between the story and the storyteller...a friction that gains intensity and resonance as the film meanders towards its conclusion. Imagine it: Hollywood's most arresting social critic, plopped precariously into starry-eyed American sentimentality. Nothing could be stranger...unless Scorsese makes a film about Hobbits.

By contrast to Fincher, his leading man, Brad Pitt, is most comfortable when exploring the peculiarities of idiosyncratic characters. After twenty years of creating iconic performances in Twelve Monkeys, Kalifornia, Fight Club and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, you would think a provocative turn like that in Benjamin Button -- a man who lives through the 20th century by mysteriously aging in reverse -- would be a less suprising shock. But pleasantly shocking it is; Pitt brings a gentle sadness to Button, a man whose difficult circumstances inform his perspective rather than cloud it. Yes, he struggles with the character's Cajun accent (a serious problem almost as distracting as the film's Hurricane Katrina flash-forwards). But in the main, Pitt takes material that in the hands of lesser superstar -- say, Tom Hanks in Gump -- would merely be maudlin and trite.

I confess that I've grown less tolerable of Hollywood "whimsy" in the last decade...a personal aversion that I first noticed, coincidentally, while watching Forrest Gump in the mid-90's. But if I've got to suffer through movies awash in easy moralizing and pat answers to life's complexities, I'd much rather do so in the company of Fincher and Pitt, who seem to share my distaste enough to try to reconstitute and recontextualize it. Good or bad, that's an incredibly admirable achievement.

Is that achievement enough, however, to recommend the film? I'm not sure...or, rather, a blanket recommendation seems to miss the point. Your enjoyment of Benjamin Button, more than any other film I've seent his year, depends upon who YOU are, and how you like your movie menu to be filled. But know, as you make your decision, that the most important word in the title of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is "curious." It's exactly the right descriptive needed for this erratic, surprising, flawed, delightful, inconsistent, fascinating hybrid.
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2 Comments:

Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

"But if I've got to suffer through movies awash in easy moralizing and pat answers to life's complexities, I'd much rather do so in the company of Fincher and Pitt, who seem to share my distaste enough to try to reconstitute and recontextualize it."

I LOVE this sentence, and whether or not I wind up agreeing with your take on the movie, I love the mix of generosity and attitude in this write-up.

11/26/08, 1:03 AM  
Blogger the said...

I dunno. I've always wondered if I'm the only person alive who absolutely despised "Forrest Gump." What an awful, silly, arrogant, pretentious, useless, boring movie. Badly conceived, even more badly executed.

;-)

11/28/08, 9:42 AM  

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