Friday, January 02, 2009

The curiously conventional case of Benjamin Button


For the record, let me just say that it brings me no pleasure at all to tear into David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." I've been an avid Fincher fan from the start, and I certainly don't want to begrudge him his moment in the sun, but I wish it could have come with something better than this debacle.

And yes, I know I'm certainly in the minority on this one. I've read the opinions of many people I trust, like Bob (who supposedly writes with a dude named Justin, though he never seems to say too much), who gave his glowing assessment here.

But for me, though it strives endlessly for charm, it too often just comes off as bland, and for that I blame screen writer Eric Roth as much as I do Fincher for turning what could have been a "eulogy for the 20th century" or any number of other grand things into a series of greeting card-inspired vignettes.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I thoroughly hate "Forrest Gump," and that's not a word I throw around lightly. It's just so treacly in all the worst ways, and though I tried to keep it out of my mind as I watched "Benjamin Button," the similarities are just all too painfully glaring.

To be fair, it starts out well enough. Brad Pitt brings a genuine spirit to F. Scott Fitzgerald's creation of an old man with the brain of a young child, and having him raised in an odd retirement home (by the always welcome Taraji P. Henson) allows for both a setting full of charm and the tricks of time I had been expecting (though I had seen a lot of this in the trailer and other clips, removing a big chunk of the magic.)

But even here it turns too quickly from Fincher's movie to Roth's, one in which every scene seems to begin in or end with an aphorism about as profound (and oft-repeated here) as "you can be anything you want to be." Much worse, it's a superficial world full of stock characters, from the seafarer who shows Benjamin the world (sound familiar?) to the kind and wise (shock!!) black characters who teach him to respect everyone he encounters.

And I would have more time for all of this if Pitt's performance didn't become more and more leaden as he begins to look more and more like, well, Brad Pitt. He just looks as bemused by that rather startling development as I was, and that robs what should have been a grand romance of most of its passion, even as Cate Blanchett does her usual best to give it a spark.

So, is it all bad? Certainly not. Along with the thoroughly charming beginning, it ends with something approaching the style I expected as Benjamin makes his appropriately traumatic return to infancy. And, despite my stated beef with Roth's characterizations, Henson's performance is as good as advertised (though, to be fair, I like her in just about everything, even the truly awful "Smokin' Aces.")

In the (way too long) middle, however, there's just wasn't nearly enough to keep me intrigued, so I have to regrettably call this one a noble failure. Like I said, I know I'm in the definite minority here, so please feel free to sound off and let me know just how wrong I am.

17 comments:

Chris said...

This is one of the strangest movies as far as reception goes as I've ever seen. Really, you love it (that was me) or you hate it.

One of my friends who I usually agree with also hated this movie, and his mother and sister walked out on it.

Look forward to reading all of your movie experiences while in the NYC.

Mercurie said...

That's sad to hear. But then I have disagreed with your opinion before, so there is still hope that I might like ...Benjamin Button. Still, with Fincher's track record, I can't complain too loudly if I don't!

Reel Fanatic said...

I certainly don't think it was so bad that it was worth walking out on, Chris, but I can't remember the last time I did that ... I went to see "Doubt" today, and it was much, much better than I expected, so the exact opposite reaction I had to "Benjamin Button"

Ashok said...

I thought I liked it but when I started writing the review I began to appreciate it even more. I have not yet seen "Forrest Gump" in its entirety which I would do soon. Anyways check out my review and see whether the points mentioned makes sense on my appreciation.

J. Marquis said...

I liked it a lot. I agree there are some lagging moments in the middle but there are also a lot of magical moments throughout the movie. And the special aging effects were excellent.

Reel Fanatic said...

The special effects were indeed, Mr. Marquis, so we can agree on at least that much ... Perhaps I was just expecting too much from David Fincher, but the more I think about it, I still my assessment (from my perspective only, of course) was just how I felt about it

Justin said...

I didn't do a whole lot for me either. It was a bad movie but it wasn't good either. I didn't much care for the setting of the frame either.

Reel Fanatic said...

The setting is indeed something that bugged me too, Justin, though I of course didn't bring it up ... If I'm not mistaken, the short story takes place in BALTIMORE, and once you turn your back on Charm City you've got a failure in my book

Bob said...

Well you certainly know how I felt about it, but as always, even when we disagree you make and defend your point very well. Really glad you liked "Doubt" so much though. Looking forward to your thoughts on that one.
So what all did you see while you were in New York?

P.S.: Justin is more of a silent partner. He really enjoyed "Benjamin," calling it a Tim Burton movie for grownups.

kat said...

I'm looking forward to your thoughts on "Doubt" as I know you had some trepidation about that one. I haven't seen it yet...hoping to get to it this weekend.

As for "Benjamin"--I have to say that I actually quite liked it. I agree that each phase of Benjamin's friendship seemed to come equipped with a ready motto, but I find that life is often like that and who you hang out with at any given phase of your life gives you new perspective in the moment. I didn't find it nearly so treacly as Forrest Gump in that regard. (But I do see some similarities, now that you point it out.)

What actually bothered me most of all was how young, baby Brad Pitt looked so much like Dick Cheney. It was disconcerting.

Happy new year!

J. Marquis said...

I'm very curious what you thought of Synecdoche NY (hope I spelled that right)...

V-Knowledge said...

While I very much liked "Benjamin Button", Reel Fanatic, your criticisms are quite valid. Since Eric Roth did write "Forrest Gump", the similarities are obvious. Despite this, I did not see this as a flaw. Fincher's film is the one I do favor much more (although I do like Zemeckis' effort, treacly as it may be :) ).

Taraji P. Henson's performance is indeed worthy of praise, and I'm rooting for either her or Viola Davis to win some awards.

And even though it clocked in at nearly three hours, it didn't feel like a long movie for me. Though, I am a little surprised that the majority of reviews did not acknowledge the film's Gump traits.

Reel Fanatic said...

I admired "Synecdoche, NY" (and yes, if I'm not mistaken, you did spell it right) more than I liked it, I'm afraid, Mr. Marquis ... I was right with Charlie Kaufman for about the first 90 minutes or so, but he finally lost me as the movie just kept getting stranger and stranger ... I still love the man, but I also think he goes down better with a co-conspirator like Mr. Jonze to keep him at least a bit in check ... As for NY, if I wake up in time (and aren't too sick, which I am right now), I'll write a full report tomorrow, but here's the rundown:

Great: "Milk" (probably my favorite movie of 2008, though "Slumdog" and some others are right up there with it)
"The Wrestler"
and "Happy Go Lucky," a truly odd but endearing little Mike Leigh flick.

Good: "Waltz with Bashir"
"Synecdoche NY" and
"Gran Torino"

Simply painful and thoroughly unnecessary: Steven Soderbergh's "Che" (yes, my brother and I sat through all five hours of it!)

And, after I got back, already "Benjamin Button," "Doubt" and "Valkyrie" .. Yes, I really do try to see a movie every day I can!

J. Marquis said...

I would say your review of Synecdoche is spot on. I loved the effort and actually enjoyed the first half of the movie quite a bit but then he lost me when they started doing the play within a play within a play etc.

I also got a kick out of those tiny pictures Catherine Keener did.

Nell Minow said...

While I liked the movie more than you did -- primarily because the end was so powerful -- I agree entirely with every aspect of your analysis. I did not connect emotionally to Benjamin (who seemed too passive) or Daisy or to their relationship. Until the final scenes, which I admit had me in tears.

And I can't stand "Forrest Gump." And agree about Henson -- she and Alicia Keys were by far the best part of "Aces." I am hoping to get to interview her about "Not Easily Broken."

But as for New Orleans, I believe that was Pitt's idea as a way of pouring some money into the city he has been so vigilant in trying to help. So that was okay with me.

Reel Fanatic said...

I have to assume you're right about New Orleans, Nell, and I certainly commend him for all the time and effort he has put into bringing back that great American city ... That said, however, Baltimore is certainly in need of a lot of help, too! ... Let me know if you indeed get to interview Ms. Henson, so I can read it ... "Not Easily Broken" just looks like a blatant Tyler Perry rip-off, so I can't say I'm particularly looking forward to that one, but I've been wrong at least once before, so here's hoping.

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