Monday, January 05, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

If only the clock WOULD run backwards, maybe Fincher would start making good movies again.David Fincher is the man who directed the excellent Seven and Fight Club. He's also the man behind the dull-as-dishwater Panic Room and the interminable Zodiac.

In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Fincher tries to get away from his unsettling earlier films by presenting an offbeat fable-slash-biopic based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, a man born wrinkled and ossified, who ages backwards into a young man and eventually a child. The movie tells of his various adventures and his lifelong romance with the chronally-normal Daisy (Cate Blanchett).

Fincher does a creditable job. The movie regularly extracts cheap emotional reactions from the audience, and mixed in with the cliched heart-grabbers there are quite a number of genuinely powerful and unique moments. In one early scene a clock running backwards shows the dead soldiers of the first World War being returned to life; another sequence building up to a car accident is excellently done but betrayed by the scenes to either side of it.

Shot-for-shot, there's nothing wrong with Benjamin Button. Every scene is well made. It's in delivering the full package that the film falls short. The script is frequently awkward, starting with an unnecessary top-and-tail plotline about Cate Blanchett on her deathbed, and continuing with a weak structure and a wealth of not-quite-interesting minor characters. There's little focus or dynamism in the narrative. None of the main characters are particularly passionate or driven by desires and ambitions. The film expects that its sheer quirkiness will keep you watching, but really the motivation to stay tuned is for the next iteration of the excellent make-up effects which enable Pitt and Blanchett to play the same characters over decades of their lives.

Also, Fincher can't direct women. Seriously. We know what Cate Blanchett looks like when she's acting, and whatever the hell she's doing in Benjamin Button isn't it. She gets passed a fairly bad baton to start with, playing a romantic interest who's ultimately quite shallow and uninteresting, and she takes that and runs with it another mile down the Boulevard of Terrible Performances. I'd lay the blame at Blanchett's feet, but after Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3, Helena Bonham-Carter in Fight Club and Jodie Foster in Panic Room, Fincher is making a habit of having great actresses stink up the screen.

Brad Pitt's pretty decent, though. It's not a signature performance or anything, but considering he spends most of the film under a metric buttload of make-up, Pitt manages to make Button a genuinely endearing character who is enjoyable to watch on-screen. The only lacuna is the section where Button's on-screen age matches Pitt's real-life age, at which point Pitt throws the character out the window and just plays himself for ten minutes or so.

Benjamin Button ultimately isn't a terrible movie. It's worlds better than Fincher's last couple of films, although it falls a long way short of his best work. If you're looking for something special, you've come to the wrong place, but if you're happy to watch something that substitutes strong cinematography for genuine soul then Benjamin Button can be a perfectly good use of a couple of your hours.


Grant said...

I really liked Zodiac.

Greg Tannahill said...

Zodiac's like pretty much all of Fincher's work post-Fight Club. Shot for shot, there's not much to complain about, and Gyllenhall and Downey Jr act their little hearts out. But it's let down by the fact it's a fundamentally rubbish premise for a movie.

The first act concentrates on the mystery of "Who Is The Zodiac Killer?", which falls apart once it becomes clear that the real life Zodiac Killer was neither identified nor caught; the second act becomes a piece about human dedication and persistence which the third act rips apart by suddenly becoming a story about how the quest for an unattainable goal is destroying the protagonists. There's three decent stories that all drown together because Fincher lets them get shackled to the bricks of historical accuracy.

There's a lot to love in Zodiac, I just don't think any of it excuses the flaws. It was better than Panic Room, though.

Grant said...

The reasons you mention as flaws are what I think are its strengths, amusingly enough - it's such a different, sprawling beast to the standard serial killer movie.

Greg Tannahill said...

Fair enough. I was watching the clock for it to end the whole way through, but there's room for more than one opinion in the world.

Grant said...

You know there's an even longer more sprawling director's cut?

Greg Tannahill said...

I did not know that and it fills me with a quiet fear.

I was chatting to somebody yesterday who also liked Zodiac. Two on one planet - what are the odds?

Anonymous 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"