Monday, February 09, 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON - technically brilliant, emotionally sterile

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a very, very long, oppressive movie based on a very, very short, funny story about F Scott Fitzgerald. The only commonality is that both book and film are about a man called Benjamin who is born as an old man and ages backwards - through decrepitude, into middle-age, to the sexual immaturity, childhood to infancy and then death. His life experiences come in the right order, but his body rebels. As a newly born old man he has cataracts and arthritis. As a long-lived infant he suffers from dementia. In middle age, he has to grapple with how to live someone who is "going the other way".

The movie is broadly speaking, an elegy. An elegy for the young men who died needlessly in World War One and the old men slaughtered in front of Benjamin's eyes in World War Two. It's an elegy for lost opportunity and failed marriages. It's an elegy for those who we condemn to death before their time, shutting them away in nursing homes, fit only for ceremonial visits once a year. Finally, most clumsily, it's an elegy for the New Orleans that was destroyed in Katrina.

Insofar as the movie works at all, the first ninety minutes pass quickly. The viewer is mesmerized by the fairy-tale feel of the story - enlivened by the fabulist prologue concerning a blind watchmaker and tales of a man struck by lightening seven times. I could have used more of that charming whimsy. The movie simply looks fantastic, and as David Fincher and DP Claudio Miranda take us into steamy brothels, misty tug boats, and shabby Soviet hotels, the senses are overwhelmed. 

Where the movie falls down is when the traveling stops and Benjamin returns home after the war and we focus on his relationship with Daisy. She was fascinated by him as a child, throws herself at him as a twenty-something, rejects him at thirty and finally has a passionate affair with him in her forties. They "meet in the middle", but their tragedy is that they cannot grow old together. I think this part of the movie failed for me because I just didn't buy into why Daisy would find Benjamin so fascinating - a character who has become a passive observer of a world he is separated from by his freakish aging process. I find passive heroes very hard to get a hold of. I also just didn't buy into the motivation that underpins a major decision at the centre of the second half of the film. And if you don't buy into it - if you don't feel you are being swept up in an emotional tragedy - the second half of the movie is a pretty tedious affair.

All of which got me thinking what I really liked about the film. It certainly wasn't the passive performance from Brad Pitt as Benjamin or the rather typically good but not outstanding performance from Cate Blanchett as Daisy. Rather, I responded to the little vignettes, and the colourful characters that filled the margins of the story.  Taraji P Henson, Tilda Swinton and Jared Harris all give strong performances but the latter is particularly charismatic as the drunken Irish sailor who takes a semi-decrepit Benjamin from his "child-hood" home in New Orleans to Communist Russia and thence to World War Two. In addition, there's also something fascinating and funny about "fish out of water" stories. To that end, seeing an old-looking but pre-teen Benjamin visit a brothel or get drunk is wonderfully funny. But let's not get too pretentious. It's the same brand of entertainment as FREAKY FRIDAY.

So, in the final analysis, for me BENJAMIN BUTTON is a game of two halves - a beautifully made, elegaic fable enlivened by the odd flash of raucous humour, somehow hitched to a film that tries to be an epic love story but left me cold. 

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON opened in 2008 in the US and Australia. It opened earlier in 2009 in Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil, Sweden, Egypt, Greece, Portugal, Denmark, Poland, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland and Venezuela. It opens this weekend in Belgium, France, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Estonia, Italy, Norway, the UK and Japan. It opens next weekend in South Korea and on February 20th in Finland.

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