A 'Curious Case' Indeed
Thursday, December 25, 2008
"Forrest Gump," "Meet Joe Black."
That's a glib way to sum up "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which stars Brad Pitt as a man who, born and swiftly abandoned in New Orleans in 1918, then ages backward into the late 20th century. Loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story (very loosely, unless Fitzgerald had amazing powers of meteorological prognostication and actually used Hurricane Katrina as a framing device), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a curious case in itself.
Admittedly, director David Fincher has brought all his considerable technical skills to bear on an epic of daunting ambition. But when all the dazzling visuals have subsided, when audiences are left with the movie's tagline ringing mawkishly in their ears and puzzled thoughts about what they just saw, they might be forgiven for concluding that they didn't see much of anything.
That tagline, by the way, is "You never know what's comin' for ya," a folksy admonition that, by accident or design, is sure to remind viewers of the "life is a box of chocolates" riff from "Forrest Gump." Both films, as it happens, were written by Eric Roth, and at its weakest "Benjamin Button" hews too closely to Gumpian schmaltz and easy sentiment. Like the earlier film, this one centers on a Candide-like naif whose travels through the world bring him in contact with all manner of colorful characters, who collectively teach him the important lessons in life.
That pretty much sums up "Benjamin Button," which relies on the title character's weird aging process to keep viewers hooked. Baby Benjamin arrives looking like a tiny, wizened old man -- E.T. in need of a Geritol ba-ba -- and as he "grows down," he goes from resembling a bent-over old man to an increasingly virile middle-aged and young man to, finally, a toddler and infant. As a baby, Benjamin is adopted by a kind housekeeper for an old folks' home in New Orleans, which turns out to be the perfect setting for him. "He looks just like my ex-husband," one resident says when she sees his wrinkled little face. (One can only wonder what such visionaries as Tim Burton or Michel Gondry would have done with such a promisingly bizarre conceit.)
Benjamin eventually sets out on a series of adventures, all set against the great love story of his life, his abiding passion for Daisy, played as a young girl by Elle Fanning and as a radiant red-haired adult by Cate Blanchett. Benjamin is such a passive character that the movie can't drum up much narrative tension. The little that exists mostly centers on whether Benjamin and Daisy will ever manage to fully realize their love despite radically different lives and diametrically opposed timelines.
"Benjamin Button" features some wonderful supporting performances. Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris and Tilda Swinton are all marvelous as Benjamin's loving adoptive mother, a tattooed tug captain and an adulterous Englishwoman, respectively. As the bohemian sylph that Daisy becomes, Blanchett has never looked more eerily ethereal, her alabaster skin pulled tightly over sharply canted cheekbones.
In fact, it's their weird, otherworldly physical looks that make Benjamin and Daisy, if not a particularly captivating narrative couple ("Benjamin Button" doesn't hold a green dock light to Fitzgerald's other Daisy-centered tale), at least a visually stunning one. "God, look at you," Daisy tells Benjamin at one point. "You're perfect." It's true that, at the height of Benjamin's ripeness, Pitt takes his golden place as a nearly flawless screen object, a role he only half-subverts by going through a reverse aging process that involves wrinkles, glasses and thinning gray hair (at 7, Benjamin bears an uncanny resemblance to Truman Capote).
As ubiquitous a presence as Pitt is here, it's difficult to classify what he does in the movie as a performance. The role is too passive, too much of a vessel for other characters' projections and actions, to demand much by way of acting. For that, Pitt is at his best in such ensemble vehicles as "Babel" and the "Oceans 11" bagatelles.
Rather, as Benjamin moves through early 20th-century America, World War II and modernism, what Pitt delivers is an appearance, albeit one that involves astonishing physical transformations. The problem with "Benjamin Button" is that Pitt's physicality is the only astonishing thing about it. Strip away that gimmick and it's utterly conventional and predictable, its moral payoff nothing more than a maudlin, anodyne mumble. If Benjamin finally learns the joy of taking risks, it's a lesson lost on the filmmakers themselves. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" would have been a more compelling curiosity if someone had let its freak flag fly.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (165 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, profanity and smoking.