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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Unfortunate Case of "Benjamin Button"

By Luke

Spoilers within (no ending ruined or anything...just reveals from the first hour or so)...

The talent attached was too tantalizing. Arguably Hollywood's best director (David Fincher), biggest movie star (Brad Pitt), best actress (Cate Blanchett), and most reliable screenwriter (Eric Roth) making a movie based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, all wrapped in a huge budget (over $150 million) spent on state of the art CGI effects.

For exactly 1 act, it works.

The first act of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button might be the most "magical" Hollywood filmmaking this year, with great performances, beautiful cinematography, and breathtaking scenes. Benjamin's world is slowly, painstakingly constructed with all of the attention to detail found in Fincher's past movies like Se7en and Zodiac. The unconventional premise of a child being born with the body of an old man and physically aging backwards could have led to narrative-slowing scenes of exposition, but Fincher and Roth don't get bogged down in the details, letting the on-screen events speak for themselves.

All the movie's best characters appear in the first third...characters brought marvelously to life - like the ship captain who fancies himself as an artist or the wife of the British spy who attempted to swim across the English Channel or the old man who has been struck by lightening 7 times. By the end of the movie, these characters have all disappeared, or been fed on-the-nose monologues explicitly stating what their characters represent. But there's something "magical" (no other word conveys the feeling as well) about these people when they are allowed to be just "be" and Benjamin, like the audience, is content to explore them and their eccentricities.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the movie takes a severe turn for the worse. It probably comes about 50 minutes in, and Daisy is all grown up. She is out with Benjamin alone, for the first time they are both adults. They clearly love each other, but he has been at sea and she's been in New York. Finally, they're together.

She seduces him, eventually being straight-forward and telling him she wants to sleep with him. He demurs, but we don't know why. Benjamin's voice over is a guiding light throughout the movie, but it is surprisingly absent here. He says "no," the scene is over, the audience is expected to move on, but the first false note has been sounded. Him saying "no" feels like nothing more than a plot device to keep them apart. What follows is even more dismaying. Suddenly, Benjamin's voice over is like a crutch, briskly traversing long periods of time, shown in fast montage. The movie cuts more to Daisy in the present, introducing a needless subplot between her and her daughter. WHY do movies continue to be constructed around the person telling a story on their deathbed? Does anyone not react adversely to that cliche at this point?

But faster than you can ponder this conundrum, we continue to
blur through Benjamin's history, with none of the precise timing found in the first third. Fincher and Roth seem incapable of creating a convincing romance, so they are content to just "tell" the audience what is happening instead of allowing the scenes to develop and "show." The last straw is when Benjamin reaches his "40's" and "30's" (in reverse) and Pitt's jaw-dropping good looks become a distraction. The audience was laughing (not in a good way) at how gorgeous he is.

By the end, the magic of the first third has completely worn off, causing one of the most frustrating movie experiences I've ever had. The talent attached was too tantalizing, but the groupings weren't quite right...and Button falls short of expectations.

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