David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a strange film that takes a strange premise – the titular character goes through life aging backwards, born an old man and ending up an infant – and completely ignores any logical, farcical, satirical or other implications that this premise might bring. You see, the aging is merely window dressing: Ben Button might have almost any other ailment, real or fictional, and the film would play out the exact same way. Given that screenwriter Eric Roth has written both films, the connection has been made before, but Benjamin Button is far too close a narrative to Forrest Gump for comfort.
Not that Forrest Gump is a bad film. And certainly, neither is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But I am unsure if the movie is great, or merely good. It’s strangely affecting, and has a real poignancy in that old-fashioned Hollywood way. And the craft is flawless: the aging effects, the period detail, the acting. The film is neither successful as an adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald´s short story it is (very) loosely based upon, nor as an examination of its intriguing premise, but it doesn´t try to be those things, either.
In New Orleans, on the eve of the First World War, a wealthy businessman´s wife dies in childbirth; the child is a grotesque infant whom the father soon abandons at the doorsteps of a retirement home. Taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a caregiver at the home, the baby is diagnosed with a variety of maladies that affect the elderly and given little time to live. But live he does, and it soon becomes apparent he´s living in reverse, as he quickly transforms into an 80-something-year-old man. He grows up in the retirement home, watches those around him perish, meets a young girl named Daisy and the two share some kind of connection.
When he gets old enough, Benjamin (played by Brad Pitt, a variety of other actors, prosthetics, and CGI effects) sets out to live his life as normally as possible. While he´s initially much younger than he looks, soon he´s close enough to share his life with Daisy (now played by Cate Blanchett) before becoming much older than he looks. But the film isn´t really about Benjamin; like Gump, it´s more about the events that occur around him and the interesting people he meets along the way. And everything is narrated on Daisy´s deathbed, as her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads Benjamin´s diary to her and Hurricane Katrina swells up around them, in scenes that add little to the story and make this 166-minute film feel even longer.
Late in the film we see a montage of the old (young) Benjamin travelling the world, living and working in various countries, and we can’t help but ask: how does a lifetime of memories affect the passion and vigor of this young man´s body? The movie never delves into the character of Benjamin Button, never gets inside his mind, and these and other questions are left unanswered. What does the young (old) Ben think when he meets Daisy? In the film´s most touching scene, when an age Daisy cradles an infant Benjamin, she notes “he looked at me, and he knew who I was.” But what did he think of that?
The film ends with a heartfelt message on the nature of identity (“Some people are…”), but who was Benjamin Button? He’s a cipher in his own movie.
The main theme of Benjamin Button seems to be the imminence of death and living life to the fullest. In an early scene, Ben asks an elderly woman “what would you say if I told you I was growing younger as I aged?” She replies, “Well, I´d feel sorry for you, because you´d have to see all your friends die.” That´s all well and good, but what exactly does it have to do with reverse aging? Don´t we all grow old and see our friends and loved ones die anyway? While part of me wants to respect the movie that screenwriter Roth has attempted to make, I also have a sense that he doesn´t quite care for or understand its central conceit.
CGI and makeup effects, which mostly involve aging Pitt or pasting his face onto other bodies, are technically flawless but frequently call attention to themselves; I often found myself wondering what was used (or if anything was used) to make the actor look so good. Acting is outstanding all around, and colorful supporting performances – though no one sticks around long enough to really make an impression – frequently keep the long film watchable. Pitt, however, has been overpraised as the blank slate Ben Button, though he certainly deserves credit for his physical commitment to the role.
Fincher is one of the best directors working in Hollywood; he’s made two films in the last fifteen years that are already considered classics (Seven and Fight Club), and that doesn’t even include his best, 2007’s Zodiac, which will get its recognition soon enough. He never quite shines in Benjamin Button, though his direction is perfectly workmanlike; there are no remarkable sequences like the Zodiac´s overhead taxicab shot or the time-lapse Transamerica construction (among many others), outside of a brief chaos theory rundown leading up to a car accident, which has only a strained connection to the rest of the film.
Unsentimental but emotionally devastating, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road is a real downer of a film buoyed by some phenomenal acting. Richard Yates’ novel, a rumination on unhappy suburban life, was the first of its kind in 1961, and 47 years later the subject matter cannot hope to have the same relevance, having been beaten to death in recent films like Little Children, which also starred Kate Winslet, and Mendes’ own American Beauty. But this film version of Revolutionary Road might well be the nail in the coffin; after this, you’ll never want to see another portrait of suburban angst again.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as Frank and April Wheeler, a rather unhappily married couple with two children and the best house on Revolutionary Road. They met in a bar, April an aspiring actress, Frank a “boy who made her smile” with no discernable goals. They got married, had the kids, Frank got a 9-5 job at the company his father toiled at. April´s dreams of becoming an actress are dashed in the opening scenes, and the descent into hell begins.
They plan to get away from it all. Move to Paris. April can get a well-paying job as a secretary, Frank can finally take some time to figure out what he wants to do with his life. An unplanned pregnancy complicates things. Are they doomed to spend their existence in suburbia? If they are, is it such a bad thing?
There isn´t much plot here; instead, Mendes hammers down the futility of these characters existence and the emptiness of their lives until they (and we) just can´t take it anymore. We desperately want these people to be happy – be happy with what they have, go to Paris, get a divorce, anything; they´re at each other´s throats throughout the entire film, and we just want it to stop. April is a classic tragic figure, someone who will, perhaps, never be happy, and she´s taking her family down with her. Or maybe it´s Frank´s fault
Pay close attention to the opening scenes: April´s play and Frank´s reaction to it. The film can be read a number of ways, but in some ways it plays out as a twisted (if indirect) revenge drama as April gets even with her husband for subtly crushing her dreams.
Reunited eleven years after 1997´s Titanic, both Winslet and DiCaprio have come a long, long way. Especially DiCaprio. His quiet, mannered portrayal of Frank anchors the film, and is the best the actor has been. Any doubts about him becoming a ‘real´ actor in Scorsese´s films and other ventures should finally be put to rest; he comes closer to Brando here than any other actor in his generation. Winslet has the showier part, and delivers a zealous, maddening performance; her final scenes are devastating. Though it often feels like she doesn´t fit in with the setting, she easily overcomes the (possible?) miscasting.
Michael Shannon shows up as John Givings, a ‘socially awkward´ young man; his mother (Kathy Bates) thinks it would for him to meet the April and Frank, the perfect couple. He ruthlessly examines and deconstructs their lives and plans in two scenes that sit at the heart of the film; Shannon scored a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work.
Also: this week’s other big releases are Miloslav Šmídmajer’s fairy tale Peklo s princeznou (showtimes | IMDb), which is screening only in Czech, and the French documentary Animals in Love (showtimes | IMDb), which charts the art of seduction in the animal kingdom and is screening in French with Czech subtitles.