Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is directed by David Fincher. Initially, this seems unlikely. Fincher's artistic appetite has been markedly darker than much of the whimsy that populates Benjamin Button. Loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, Fincher somehow manages to bring almost none of the pitch-black subversiveness to the romantic tale he and Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth relate while simultaneously bedimming the brightest portion of the apologue in one extended mattress-dwelling montage late in the picture accompanied by melancholic voice-over. Admittedly, Fitzgerald's 1922 short story was less direct and unequivocal about its author's equally afflictive and wholly uncomfortable relationship with materialism than his legendary The Great Gatsby or The Diamond as Big as the Ritz—whose titular promise strikes at the heart of the rampant materialistic vein against which Fitzgerald staunchly wrote.

As crafted by Roth and screen story-credited Robin Swicord, the screenplay with which Fincher works seems indebted to some of the more suspect Oscar-winners of the 1990s such as Titanic and the aforementioned Gump, the latter of which may have served to provide the framing device of an old woman near death's doorstep reminiscing on the glorious past of her lover. For greater dramatic effect and symbolism—a staggering washing away of the past—the “contemporary” setting is placed against the background of the oncoming Hurricane Katrina. A bothersome television monitor in the hospital at which this old woman, Daisy, is preparing to perish in the company of her thirty-seven-year old daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond) repeatedly informs the audience of the hurricane's movements. Roth and Fincher do not allow the accessory to distract too much, but it is manipulative and unnecessary nevertheless.

Cate Blanchett plays Daisy (a name that immediately connotes springtime and earthly renewal as well as paying homage to the object of Gatsby's desire in The Great Gatsby), the great love of Benjamin Button's life. As played by Brad Pitt, Benjamin is perpetually informed by the people nearest to his orbit. Born with the decrepitude of an old man, the child Benjamin is taken to a house of “Negroes” by his father in New Orleans only moments after his birth. The allusion to Moses taken in by “the other,” and a little later the Biblical references in a black church (Acts 14:3 emblazoned on a banner in the background, referring to “sings and wonders...” to come through the hands of those who speak boldly upon the Lord) seem to initially cast Fitzgerald's tale in Judeo-Christian tinting. Yet as the film progresses, Fincher takes Benjamin on a more tellurian, and, indeed, physical journey.

It is in that continual emphasis on the physical that Fincher remains. When those who question Fincher's fingerprints on the picture opine their consideration, the answer must come that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button displays—for better and worse—the tonal instincts of its director. Fincher's best films, Se7en and Zodiac—and especially the latter—succeeded so smashingly because they played perfectly into the filmmaker's prismatically sealed obsessiveness. The more Fincher adds to his body of work, the more apparent it becomes that for all of his considerable talent, he has yet to surpass the tonal confinements that practically define the essence of his finest and culminating oeuvre. That helps when Fincher's art is directly irradiated by the subject matter—two entirely different policemen united in their objective in Se7en; a man finding his past brought to the present with devilish relish by an uncontrollable corporate conspiracy (The Game); a curious man driven by puzzles seeking out the identity of a notorious serial killer (Zodiac).

Yet Fincher and his screenwriters have opened up the saga of Benjamin Button to the point where Fincher's best attribute is turned against him. Panic Room was a minor movie in which Fincher tried to summon visual importance out of outre and vainglorious camera movements and CGI configurations. Fincher's blunt visual language likewise was perfect for the uniformly downcast Se7en. Yet spurts of Fincher's conceptual workings portray a filmmaker with a solid grasp of his own strengths made occasionally frustratingly literal or at least undistinguished from earlier films. To convey the passage of time in Zodiac, Fincher allows the screen to become a window through which the viewer watches the CG construction of the Transamerica Pyramid building in San Francisco over the course of a few seconds. This is an interesting bit of cinematic shorthand, and in its own way far more meaningful than the hypocritical and almost paralyzed-by-pretense closing imagery of Fight Club, yet Fincher deploys an assortment of vistas and almost visional panaceas meant to take the viewer's breath away in Benjamin Button that, for all of their grandiosity, tend to veer toward the perfunctory.

With a story that should be sweepingly biographical—considering Roth's massive screenplay and the film's final running time—Fincher's technique tends to make all of the hills and valleys play out as flat. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick are naturally interesting, yet Kubrick's pictures, concerned as they were with the disintegration of the humanity of human beings, followed the arc with a keen direness that eloquently described the tragedy at his films' foundation. Fincher's films tend to close themselves off, denominating the very sequestered protagonists in the changeless epitome of the pictures' portraitures. Taking Fitzgerald's short story and expanding on it to the point of creating a chimerical biographical account, Fincher is unable to properly convey the most bottomless sorrows and stratospheric highs of his main character. Instead, he and Roth rely on one of the great crunches of cinema history to describe how people—and especially Benjamin—felt about what was happening to them: nearly ceaseless voice-over. Narrated, in a way, by three different people (Benjamin through his diary; Caroline, reading Benjamin’s words to Daisy; the old woman supplying the joining parts occasionally missing from Benjamin’s written history), the film finds itself placed at the mercy of Roth's effectualness as a screenwriter.

Roth's writing is normally well-structured, if nothing else, and Benjamin Button is broken up in three cleanly arranged acts. The first takes up the film's first hour, expiring when Benjamin leaves his old habitat overseen by his adoptive mother, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, who, in a way, seems to know what kind of film she is in, gesticulating with a theatricality otherwise limited to Blanchett's truly “mesmerizing”—as Benjamin once calls it—dancing as Daisy). The second, middling both in quality and placement, advances Benjamin’s story as a sailor with an avuncular and charismatic Captain Mike, to his brief but memorable affair with an English woman living in a Russian hotel played with palpable acuity and restraint by Tilda Swinton. The third details the meeting of Benjamin and Daisy, colliding in age the way people meant for one another do so, only with attendant complications arising from Benjamin's curious condition.

Roth's leitmotifs are made apparent, repeatedly, almost to exhaustion. The comparisons to his Forrest Gump cannot be dismissed. When Benjamin Button is at its most prosaic, the film seems like Forrest Gump in its best dress. Benjamin is amazed by the appearance of a hummingbird, far out at sea and relates it in a wondered awe that recalls Tom Hanks' simple appreciation of seemingly all things. Roth once again portrays the woman as selfish, wanton and pushy—all the while knowing that the man followed by his screenplay through thick and thin is The One.

Rather than self-destruct through drugs in a long, torturous stint as an agitating counterculture chick, Daisy is a dancer who, Roth seems to insist, has allowed her success to go to her head. At age twenty-three she dismisses Benjamin's efforts to, as he says, “sweep [her] off [her] feet,” enjoying her bubbly, meaningless dalliances while he stoically stews in the shadows. Again moments of syrupy ruminations on death (rather than cultural icons and politicians being “shot” in Gump, characters close to Benjamin die out while he de-ages through the twentieth century) populate the narrative, almost from the beginning, unfortunately missing the key ingredient of Fitzgerald's wit. Fitzgerald's famous statement, “After all, life hasn't much to offer except youth, and I suppose for older people, the love of youth in others,” may in its own dimensional context serve as a springboard for the story, but Roth and Fincher seem at a loss as to what to say about this condition except a long-winded version of, “Too bad it's all this way, but there's nothing you can do about it, so just keep living through it.”

That message grows tiresome. In a way, it's no less patronizing than Forrest Gump's (which, it has often been said, exalted the virtue of being sufficiently stupid to always enjoy life). It cannot be a coincidence that Roth transfers Forrest's condition as a threat against his progeny to Benjamin's worry that his child will be born like he was. It is a legitimate avenue on which to narratively travel and yet both the screenplay and Fincher's direction are unable to engrossingly illustrate the contentment of parenthood Benjamin says he feels. The aforementioned mattress montage, which seems to somehow exemplify the tuned-out happiness of the 1960s, including the Beatles on television, describes the gleeful repletion that the luckiest in the world fleetingly experience. Fincher tries his hand at romance and the audience believes in it because the words Pitt and Blanchett speak are delivered with such earnestness but his pictorial representations of the unrequited and then finally completely reciprocal love between the two never entirely convince.

Fincher's picture does not lack some bright spots. Blanchett gives one of her better performances. She is playing a person, not an avatar or representation as in The Aviator. Fincher is able to balance Daisy's dual role as aesthetically-minded artistic dancer and as something approximating Benjamin's own beckoning green light. Blanchett steals the film, and glows with a warmth that suggests the acclaim that sometimes seems closely related to puffery is not undeserved. Perhaps, however, some of her excelling screen presence is made all the more evident by the corresponding vacuity presented by Pitt. Whether adorned by old-age make-up or driving his motorcycle at his true pretty boy stage, Pitt never registers. There is a difference between underplaying and simply not making anything of an impact to the character. Fincher seems to keep Pitt on a tight leash, and the actor seems perfectly fine trusting in the director's strategy.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not desultory, it simply never surpasses the surface patina polish of Fincher's CG recreations of naval warfare, space shuttles and cityscapes. Nor the admittedly fascinating work done on Pitt himself, who seems to briefly strive to make something of an impression underneath all of the artifice. Ironically it is when he is again completely recognizable that he slips into his lazy on-screen persona, recently left behind when he played Jesse James as a ghostly specter avenging his own sins. That describes much of the film itself. There are fits and starts, sequences that are compelling by themselves. The film never congeals, it never formulates beyond the “and then this happened” linear one-two-three storytelling. Many aspects, including the latter name of Benjamin's and its origins—and the very role of buttons supposedly drawn by the humorously buttoned studio logos—are touched upon with all of the fervor of a weary parent reading a story to their child for the fourth time in a row. Roth and Fincher, and Pitt, are in a profound way hamstrung by the very high-budgeted dazzle that has received so much attention. Lost beneath the surface is Fitzgerald's own Benjamin Button.

65 comments:

FilmDr said...

Nice review, Alexander. You end by writing that "Lost beneath the surface is Fitzgerald's own Benjamin Button," but Fitzgerald's character is hardly there at all. The very short story is basically an idea barely sketched in, with Benjamin staying at home for much of the time. The movie version is one of the most extreme cases of taking an idea and running with it that I've seen since the more recent version of The Killers.

Did you notice that the frame narrative carries an odd resemblance to the one in The English Patient?

I could also see the family resemblance to Forrest Gump, but the former film mostly seems to celebrate baby boomer history, and I never believed in Tom Hanks' character. He's mostly annoying, but Benjamin Button ends up stressing the absurdity of aging by suffering the process in reverse, and it made sense to me that he would be a detached figure looking on his life. I found the film compelling for that reason.

Also, I believe the name Daisy might have been an allusion to the much-idealized figure in The Great Gatsby, another story about hopelessly wanting to find way to return to an earlier innocence.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, FilmDr. I agree, Benjamin is "hardly there at all." Concerning the name Daisy, I wrote the same thing about the name being an homage to The Great Gatsby but somehow lost that sentence between my Word document version and this one. I'll have to put that back in.

You're of course right that Forrest Gump is primarily about Hollywood's romantization of the baby boomer generation.

Great point about the narrative's framing device carrying an odd resemblance to the one in The English Patient. Hadn't thought of that. Excellent call there!

Alexander Coleman said...

By "the more recent version of The Killers," are you referring to Don Siegal version? I'm not sure I'm familiar with any newer interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Someone out there gets it.

I give your review 4 stars Mr. Coleman.

The movie gets only 2.

Joel E said...

Oh Alexander, I'm afraid you've gone and taken some of the air out of my Benjamin Button balloon with your review. While I liked the film more than you, I agree that are some weaknesses to the script that keep the movie from rising to the occasion.

Your comments regarding Fincher, his direction, and his previous films are interesting although I'm not sure I completely agree with your take. I'll have to do some thinking on it though before I comment further.

As for the acting, I thought all the main performances were good if not great. Pitt is doing some strong work here and I think that later in the film, he's actually playing off his acting style as a younger man. Of course, it doesn't help that the screenplay removes him from the narrative late in the film either, or that his rare appearances later in his life are mostly delivered through montage.

As for Blanchett, I agree she does some excellent work here and I was amazed by her dancing and by her (apparent) performance under scads of makeup and CGI as an elderly woman.

Benjamin Button probably won't make my top 10 for the year, but I think it's got more to say (and more integrity) than a skillful hackjob like Forest Gump. While it may not deliver the same cinematic kick of philosophical cleverness that Synecdoche, NY does, it felt less trite to me than you describe.

However, I think there's merit to much of your criticism and I have been vacilating back and forth between liking the film and feeling disappointed by it.

I'm not sure where I will end up, but your thorough analysis has laid bare more weaknesses than I had noticed before and I'm finally willing to concede that Button may bare more than simply structural resemblances to Forest Gump.

Ultimately (as this rambling comment makes clear), I'm fairly conflicted about the film and not at all ready to make up my mind on it. Curious I suppose because I saw it over a week ago. You'd think I'd have gotten a grasp on it by now.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for kind words, Anonymous.

And thank you, too, Joel, for the very thorough and thought-provoking response to my review. It's always a blast to hear from you.

I had read your comment in Craig's Benjamin Button thread about how the screenplay lets the other components down. I'd go along with that (except I seem to be significantly more critical of other elements as well). Eric Roth's screenplay has some fine parts to it, and I, as usual, give him credit for crafting a clean, three-act structured narrative, but maybe it's just too clean. The dependences on montage, voice-over and other devices add up, though, and contributed to the narrative's dilution for me.

I'm so happy you brought up Synecdoche, New York, Joel. I kept thinking, even as Benjamin Button was unspooling before my eyes, that the frontal message of Button seemed to be identical to Stanley Kaufman's directorial effort, except made pretty and more popularly palatable, and less complex. (Though I thought Synecdoche, New York had much more to say, and more ways to say it.)

Thank you, though. I'll still be thinking about this one for a while, though I fear my opinion won't change much. (Though I'd be happy if it were to be changed by someone, or by the film whenever I give it another look.)

I don't believe anyone can dispute Cate Blanchett's effectiveness in this film, including under the scads of makeup and CGI. She helped make the film work to at least a small degree even when other forces were seemingly working against it.

Thank you for the kind and gracious comments, though, Joel, and I'm happy to hear my review impacted your thinking on the film (while being a little saddened that it exposed more weaknesses to you). I do think the Forrest Gump comparisons are natural. It's more intelligently put together, it feels more like an art-house film and it's not painfully insulting to the degree the Zemeckis movie was, but they do share a common lineage, unfortunately.

mc said...

Fascinating discussion. Alexander did you write a review for SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK? I enjoyed that movie even though it was kind of depressing.

I hvae not seen THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON yet.

Alexander Coleman said...

Here you go, mc.

Thank you for the comment again.

Dorothy Porker said...

HEAR, HEAR Alexander. This is a fantastic review and it's almost reassuring to hear someone who had a similar reaction to CCBB I did. While I give Pitt a bit more credit, especially during the first hour and a half or so, I agree wholeheartedly that Blanchett walks away with the film. What a talent -- and like you say, the degree of fervor toward her does border on puffery at times, but boy, does she rise up to the challenge time and time again.

"With a story that should be sweepingly biographical—considering Roth's massive screenplay and the film's final running time—Fincher's technique tends to make all of the hills and valleys play out as flat. "

THAT about captures my feelings about the entire enterprise. Fantastic way of putting it.

And FilmDr, now that you mention "The English Patient," doesn't Count Almasy resemble physically Blanchett's Daisy?

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the enthusiastic and enlightening comment, Dorothy. Happy New Year to you and all who dwell in Coleman's Corner on this and any other days of the year.

Sounds like we're almost in complete agreement. I will soon read your take.

It's interesting about Cate Blanchett. She's always struck me as, unquestionably, enormously talented. She may go down as one of the great actresses of all time: she's that exquisite, time and again. And yet recently I was beginning to wonder if she was falling into a comfort zone, and the critical fawning was becoming over-the-top. (That said, her work in I'm Not There definitively transcended any "gimmickry" about it.) Here, though, she establishes herself as a powerful presence and grounding force in a film that desperately needs one.

I give Pitt some credit for the first hour or so. And there are some good little beats he is given to play with periodically throughout. But. So much of the film, with him, feels a little like Meet Joe Black II. He hasn't been this much of a cypher in a long time, even when playing a knucklehead-airhead in the Coens' Burn After Reading, which managed to succeed as a comment on his alter-ego persona quite well.

In any event, thank you again for commenting. We can continue to find strength in each other's similar positions on this film! :)

Pierre de Plume said...

What a thought-provoking review, Alexander. Although your reaction to BB is more cynical or harsh than mine, you put well into words a number of specific observations and rationale for your assessments.

"The film never congeals, it never formulates beyond the 'and then this happened' linear one-two-three storytelling."

That's quite a statement, though I'm apparently more content than you with the film as entertainment. We both agree, however, that the script is a weaker aspect of the film.

To me, the similarities with Gump have less to do with specifics -- though you mention some valid comparisons -- than with a common consciousness (Roth) at work. What you describe as "syrupy ruminations on death" I phrase as dancing around depth but never really taking the plunge.

Regarding voiceover narration, I believe The Assassination of Jesse James used quite a lot of that but to better effect than here. Until you discussed the extended use of this device, though, it hadn't occurred to me that less might've been more in this case.

Also, I'm glad that you brought up Titanic, a film that this one had me thinking about.

The Katrina setting did not bother me at all. In fact, your characterization of the "washing of the past" is one of the more sensible observations I've read about this structural device.

Although I view BB as a very good film that nearly transcends itself at times, it indeed seems to be not just served by but also a bit constrained by Fincher's "prismatically sealed obsessiveness."

We agree on Blanchett's work. I found Pitt to be good if not stellar, and I found him to be more effective, I think, than you did when playing middle age and older.

So thank you, Alexander, for this thought-provoking piece. (I even had to look up some words to make sure I knew what they mean.)

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the thorough and exceptionally well-composed reply to my review, Pierre. It means a lot, and especially as this is your maiden comment at Coleman's Corner. Thank you for spending a part of your New Year's Eve, or perhaps beginning of the New Year (the clock just ticked to 2009 here about ten few minutes ago), over here. And thank you for the very kind comments, they mean a great deal.

Concerning the voice-over, I agree with you about the commonality between this and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford among other films that were more successful in using the device. I do think that in this case "less would have been more"; the voice-over seemed truly endless with this picture, and I think it neither contributed a cinematic flavoring to the proceedings, such as the one utilized for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford--which through the impartial narration of an omniscient observer, helped transport the viewer to a specific time and place, enhancing the setting dramatically in that instance.

I can see why the Katrina background setting would not bother many. It is a strange way to offer support for the film's themes--and thank you for the kind comment about how I perceived the hurricane as a literal metaphor for the "washing away of the past." In this context, the background is achieves more for me personally, and perhaps for many others.

I do think Fincher's very gifts that have resulted in such stellar pictures in the past, especially in his last before this one, were ill-suited and almost contradictory to the rhythm that Eric Roth's screenplay seemed to be demanding, as you say, Pierre.

It will be interesting to see if anyone thinks Blanchett was less than quite good in this film. She lingers in a way that one wishes were true for the entire film. I understand where you are coming from with regards to Brad Pitt, Pierre, and you have done a fine job of defending much of his work in the film. I don't think he's ever bad, necessarily, but he is something of an absentee leading man. I like the interpretation that some have had that Benjamin is distanced from the audience by his condition and his special role in the lives of others, and that perhaps he is wise beyond his years--if that phrase even makes sense considering his curious case.

Thank you once again, Pierre.

FilmDr said...

Alexander,

Yes, I was thinking of the Don Siegel version of The Killers, another movie that takes a short story and greatly expands on it.

Dorothy Parker,

Yes, Daisy does not resemble the Count much, but Julia Ormond reminded me of Juliette Binoche, and in both films the women gradually reconstruct the framed storyline with the help of a book full of scraps. Both inside narratives are about intense but ultimately hopeless loves.

I think Benjamin Button worked so well for me because it is all about aging, the one topic that Americans still have much difficulty with (especially baby boomers). Whereas usually films treat aging in either a sentimental or ageist way, Button treats it as an existential condition full of loss regardless of which way one is aging. The Hunger is the only other film I can think of that treats the topic in such a thought-provoking manner.

I also just really like New Orleans, so I'm biased in that regard.

Alexander Coleman said...

FilmDr., that does make the comparison between The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The English Patient make even more sense. Very interesting thoughts.

I love New Orleans as well. The setting was one of my favorite parts of the film.

I cannot wait to see The Hunger.

I definitely admired certain aspects of the way "aging" (and "de-aging") is handled. There is a thoughtfulness to the film, and no horrible line like, "Life is like a box of chocolates." Though some may suggest that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does not have much in the way of memorable lines. That is perhaps a good sign, actually, as Roth may have tried to use dialogue more befitting "real life," but I do wish a film so narratively expansive had some more things to say, and more ways to say them.

I have always greatly admired Siegal's version of The Killers, FilmDr. No question that it's a great case of a film taking a short story and running with it. That's a terrific example of cinema expanding on a greatly respected somewhat "minor work" of an iconic author's.

tim watts said...

Alexander you have done it again. This is an awesome review taking a tough contrarian position of sorts. You have given voice to those of us who see what you see. Fincher has a lot of talent but as for this movie, the emperor simply has no clothes.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the comment and kind words, Tim. I don't aim to be a contrarian, and it does seem as there are those like Dorothy and others who agree. Nevertheless, thanks.

Allan Fish said...

The premise of the film is actually more interesting than the actual presentation. I quite agree with much of what you say here Alexander. Stupendous review. Cheers, I am leaving the US within a few hours.

Sam promises to have his full response later tonight.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you quite sincerely for those very kind words, Allan--that means a great deal coming from you. I believe you have nailed it with your statement, "The premise of the film is actually more interesting than the actual presentation." Very true.

Cheers to you as well. Have as peaceful and enjoyable a flight as possible. I look forward to Sam's response. Should I be practicing the act of unsheathing my sword? Haha. Again, best wishes on your flight.

christian said...

Is it okay to say I've never liked one damn thing Fincher has done? I think he's a technical wonk with no cinema soul. The fact that he directed the Nike evil "Revolution" ad is all you need to know where his center lay. Or Lie. This movie looks way too big and forced to be Fincher's Big Statement. It's just another commercial.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ha, yes, it is perfectly okay, Christian. Indeed, more than okay.

I happened to know you felt that way from past remarks, and I'll be the very first to admit that, at best, Fincher's attributes do not mesh with Fitzgerald's humanism at all. The film is proof of that for me.

The fact that Jeffrey Wells adores Fincher is an unsettling indicator, too. :)

Sam Juliano said...

Quite a fascinating thread here with stellar discourse from the Film Doctor, Pierre, Dorothy and Joel, all of whom really seem to have collared this film, most with considerable reservations. I do understand how Joel feels, and I am with him not only in spirit but also on that inability to give this film closure one way or the other. The film probably won't make my Top Ten list of 2008, but i still feel it in all likelihood warrants the "honorable mention" list, but I'm still trying to process this entire thinbg, especially in the wake of these hard-to-dispute issues which you pontificate on in a most consumate and persuasive fashion.
The good film doctor clarified the Fitzgerald situation with the character (I have never read the short story, even though like everyone else I consider GATSBY one of the greatest of all American novels)but your damning criticism: "Fincher brings to this film none of the pitch-black subversiveness to the romantic tale that was present in th eshort story." The absence of this element if indeed a fact or a perception would be fairly damaging, methinks, and it would violate the mood and direction that Fitzgerald intended. But still, artistic license could yield a successful adaptation in a much different sense, a theory you roundly dispute in your review throughout.
I had picked up THE ENGLISH PATIENT framing device myself while watching it, mainly as a result of the old-age make-up that somehow recalled the Minghella film fo rme, but since the film doctor saw it too, I'll say it must have been fairly obvious.
I really like your insightful comments about the film's setting deliberately evoking, through dramatic effect and symbolism the "washing away of the past" and Hurricane Katrina. Nice.
I did find depite these serious problems you astutely layout in a magisterial essay, a considerable amount of valid emotion, no doubt generated by the still potent melodrama, the central plot deceit and the astounding makeup work with Brad Pitt, that enhances his reasonable solid work here. As you note Ms. Blachet is fine as is Ms. Henson, both who are charismatic.
It is hard to refute your disclaimer that "Fincher's best attribute is turned against him here," although to be quite honest I am not as enamored of you of the CG recreations at the expense of expansive drama, but i don't say that as if you are missing anything at all, it's just a matter of preference and taste. It may well be that "Fincher's best attribute is turned against him." I amnot sure this isn't true.
The FOREST GUMP parallel is irrefutable of course as just about everyone has seen this.

What is all comes down to with this kind of film is this simple question:

Were you moved and if so were you moved deeply? There is no way that Alexander could answer yes to this question and simultaneously cling to the serious issues he has with this film. If there is a strong emotional connection with this material, the disclaimers would be either ignored or downgraded.

I am with Joel, in that i am still pondering my own position on the film, but your own stance as well as that of Pierre and Dorothy among others has left me with serious food for thought.

Magnificent work again.

Tomorrow I'll "tackle" your DOUBT review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sam, thank you so much for that terrific response to the review and the thread of discussion as well. I'm a little surprised I didn't see The English Patient connection before FilmDr. wisely brought it to my attention, but it certainly there now that I think about it more.

I do agree with your last point--that if I were somehow emotionally touched by the film at least some of these criticisms would melt away and/or be greatly reduced in importance. Unfortunately, I was never moved, and consequently these issues are all the more vexing for me.

I'm happy to hear the review, and this discussion, which I agree has been great, has provided some food for thought for you, Sam. Thank you again for the extraordinarily comprehensive reply.

coffee fiend said...

Benjamin Button was very Fincher-esque... almost as good as his other stuff if not for some nagging plot holes

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the comment, coffee fiend.

ben said...

Magnificent dissection.

You should be getting paid an exorbitant sum for this, Alexander.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Ben. And thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting again.

Craig Kennedy said...

Well this is certainly a thoughtful and well-articulated dissection of Benjamin Button Alexander, but unfortunately it seems to be of a different movie than what I saw. I can't remember the last time I was so far removed from the opinions of so many people I admire and respect.

It's no fun!

I'm inclined to think maybe I'm just getting shallow in my old age, but I take solace in knowing that I loathe Titanic and Forrest Gump and just about every other movie everyone is so eager to tie around Button's neck.

I am susceptible to sentiment from time to time however, and sometimes certain things get past my armor and get under my skin. I can only think that's what has happened here. I'm not so blind as to think the film is perfect, but there are times when the balance of the picture forgives the shortcomings and this is one of those occasions.

Alexander Coleman said...

Hi, Craig!

It sounds like the great divide between you and I on Benjamin Button is that it touched you, at least at some level, and Roth's weaving of a lifetime-spanning romantic storyline worked alongside Fincher's... equability.

I think I can understand how frustrating it may be to have a film you like or love compared to movies you detest. I know I have been on the other side of that one. Pushing The English Patient and Titanic aside, I do think the linkage between Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button has to be addressed (and you did so, though you disagreed with me and others about the merits of the comparison), if for no other reason than the rather plain one that they share the same screenwriter and do have narrative similarities.

That notwithstanding, however, I do sense that it is a debate whose central source is the question of whether or not the film moved you. I have been reading others from other websites state that they were crying for the last forty minutes. I'm still wondering at what, but if the film moved them then that is that.

Ultimately, I just wish Fincher had either subordinated his own instincts, or technique, more, taking Roth's mushroomed version of Fitzgerald's concept and run with it, or the narrative suited whatever Fincher was going after. As it was, for me, it made the film--no pun intended--a wash.

Craig Kennedy said...

I didn't take much from Fitzgerald's story and I think Roth was wise to run with it. Whether he ran in the right directions is another issue altogether.

Yes, the movie moved me and the older I get the more I'm learning to start with that gut instinct and then move from there in terms of analysis. That works both ways however. It's very obvious that at least half of the people who see it weren't moved at all, and if I'm willing to credit the filmmakers, it's only fair that the others will criticize them.

It's fascinating that you're left wondering what people were moved by and I'm left wondering how you could've missed it!

It would be less shocking if we weren't so frequently in agreement.

And yes, I will (and did) acknowledge some narrative similarities to Gump, but that film is a cinematic pejorative and it stings to hear it used so callously against a movie I care about.

At first I was prepared to assume that the fanboy crowd who gets into the cold, technical Fincher of Fight Club and Seven was just turned off by this more brazenly emotional version, but that theory went out the window when people who weren't necessarily inclined towards those films also had a bad reaction.

In the end, I have to say I support your perspective and I admire your eloquent expression of it but I'm glad to feel good about the movie and I think I got the happier end of the deal. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

That sounds like a very healthy understanding to me, Craig. And I'm sincerely happy that you came away more or less loving the film. I'm perhaps especially intrigued by your comment that you were beginning to suspect the backlash was coming from misanthropic Internet-dwelling Fincher fanboys who were left dissatisfied by Fincher taking something significantly sunnier.

I'm interested in how seeing this film will impact the way in which I see Fincher's earlier films, including Fight Club, whose pretentiousness has always irritated me to no end and Zodiac, which I've admired.

Yes, I am callous in my using of Forrest Gump here. Every time I invoke it I feel like I'm pushing the knife in a little deeper.

It does sound like you got the happier end of the deal in this case, however, Craig. Good for you! :)

Pierre de Plume said...

For the record -- once again -- I wish to emphasize that I liked and enjoyed this film. I know that the focus in many of these comments (including mine, I guess) has been more on the negative side.

Getting down to emotional reactions, I will say my opinion is that this film reaches out to a sort of generic emotional level as opposed to a specifically personal one. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone. So when the tears come, it's more of an "Oh, yeah, I can relate to that" as opposed to actually relating to that.

Rather than lament this qualitative absence by referring to this as a failure or shortcoming, I'd rather savor the things that are there.

That said, this discussion is quite illuminating. I hope I've made myself clear.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, you have made yourself quite clear, Pierre. Thank you for the kind words, and for offering such a cogent and thoughtful analysis of your own emotional reaction to the film. That makes a great deal of sense.

And I understand the importance of staying positive about a film that to an admirable extent "worked" for you. This discussion has been one that has leaned on the more negative side. If someone, including you, wishes to point out some of the film's stronger elements, I'm all for the discussion.

Pierre de Plume said...

I don't think I'm up for that discussion, Alexander. This should be left to people who really love the film. Suffice it to say that it's good entertainment. When one goes beyond that is where the waters get choppy.

Alexander Coleman said...

Very much understood, Pierre. Thank you again for the very thoughtful and nuanced comments, however.

nick plowman said...

I also loved this film, I really did.

I mostly agree with what Craig has to say about it, I do wish I could love it as much as him, but there were one or two things that bugged me about it. Otherwise, I thought it was enchanting.

Alexander Coleman said...

I'm quite happy to hear that you found it enchanting, Nick. I found some individual setpieces to be rather arresting. The entire Russian hotel portion, which isn't too long, played like a strong, isolated short movie.

Christopher said...

I felt strangely empty when I left the movie theater a couple days back. Alexander, I think in this case you have unveiled a stupendous analysis of just what went wrong here. I love Cate Blanchett and I must say I think she was great. Too bad the rest of the film didn't reach the heights she did.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Christopher. I'm happy to hear you enjoyed reading the review.

I'm still looking for someone who didn't like Blanchett. I hope that, if they exist, they stop by CCC!

vanessa said...

OUCH!

I loved it but even I gotta admit you make many great points in this very, very well-written review.

Anonymous said...

Benjamin button is an interesting situation which occurs when a person's life is affected by social norms that cannot be interupted or overturned. As Benjamin's narration in the film goes, as everyone was getting older I was getting younger. Unbeknownst to him, Benjamin's life is duly affected by the time reversing clock created by the blind clock maker-- as Benjamin was born right after the first world war, it had been the time when the clock began operation. It would appear that the point of Benjamin's dilemma is the townsfolk could not contest the dysunctional clock since social norms dictate that since the clock-maker was commissioned to make and design the clock everyone ought to show respect and not condemn his work even though a serious mistake in judgement had been committed. It would not be surprising that in ancient societies, respect for authority must be guaranteed no matter how erroneous authority chooses to become. I agree that the plot is not desultory since the it aims to portray a point-- that in some old-fashioned settings, decisions made by authority figures could not be challenged no matter how erroneous the decisions are in themselves.

d.b.m. said...

haven't seen the movie but yer review kickz azz.

Alexander Coleman said...

Sorry you felt the "OUCH," vanessa. I'm truly glad to hear you "loved" the film.

Anonymous, you make many finely fecund and well-articulated points in your analysis of the importance of the clock and the clock-maker in relation to the entire story. I particularly like your point about authority and its place in ancient societies. It is one of the more fascinating aspects to the "parable" side of the story, and I see that you agree.

d.b.m., thank you for the kind words.

Sergei Smirnov said...

Alexander has written a superb piece of film criticism. If you told me that I would be underwhelmed by a David Fincher-Brad Pitt teaming at this point in their careers I would have laughed at you. Turns out I was very underwhelmed. A shame.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the very kind words, Sergei. It sounds like we responded similarly to the film.

Anonymous said...

Lots of great points here.

Blanchett stands out in the end. I hope she gets a nomination. The rest of the movie is only ok.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous.

I agree with you about Blanchett.

d.b.m. said...

saw the movie 2day.

YAWN. zzzzz. u laid a righteous smackdown on this 1.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I wasn't deliberately attempting to lay "a righteous smackdown" on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, d.b.m., but thank you nevertheless for the kind comment.

sartre said...

I can appreciate and respect your thoughtful take on the film Alexander, even though I don't share it. What comes across is the strong sense of you finding it emotionally and dramatically flat, something you attribute to Fincher's artistic sensibility, the limitations of the screenwriter, and Pitt's collusion with both.

Like Craig and some others here I felt my way through the film. Finding it touching, engaging, intelligent, and tasteful. Benjamin's near passivity, constantly living in the moment or striving to, made sense to me. And despite the challenges of character and personality projection such a role creates I still strongly registered Pitt throughout. It's not a complex story, and Benjamin isn't a layered character. But simple stories that facilitate seeing very real existential issues (particularly as they relate to our most heartfelt connections with others) in a lucid way can work wonderfully well. I'm sure you would have loved for the film to have worked this way for you. But that's the beauty of art. Viva la difference.

Alexander Coleman said...

Your extraordinarily eloquent comment is more welcome than you could ever know, Sartre. :)

I can see where the film would succeed for someone finding the methodical process through which Fincher crafted the film to be arresting and artistically rich. Your inclination towards challenging and mature films, for instance, proves that in this and other ways The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earned your acceptance, and your working through the film as you say.

And I echo your own final point about how art is ultimately evaluated with subjective eyes. I desperately wanted to be moved and touched by the film, and for whatever reason, it never came through, or together, for me.

In any event, thank you for the gracious and thoughtful comment to a divergent view, Sartre. And again, thank you for the kind words. It's so wonderful to have you back in my Corner. Yuck, yuck. :-)

Dead Pan said...

This is a wonderful review of a not so wonderful film. Nice work. I really think you captured everything that needed to be captured. We can definitely agree on this, Roth ruined the film and Fincher almost saved it, in fact, he did save it from being dreck.

But you're ultimate assessment of Fincher is, as well, very spot on. He is incredibly talented but I too believe he has yet to find complete footing where you know he is in total control while watching the film, such as a Kubrick or something.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Dead Pan. It seems as though we agree a great deal on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Thank you again for the kind words and comment.

vanessa said...

I saw it again! I can't stay away from it. The movie makes me cry.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, as Woody Allen said, the heart wants what it wants.

Rick Olson said...

That describes much of the film itself. There are fits and starts, sequences that are compelling by themselves. The film never congeals, it never formulates beyond the “and then this happened” linear one-two-three storytelling.

My thoughts exactly, Alexander. A fine review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very kindly, Rick. Glad you enjoyed it. The review, not the film... :)

Anonymous said...

Fincher needs to go back to serial killers.

Brilliant review!

Laura said...

I saw this over the weekend. I didn't much like it because it seemed to go on forever. But I liked the actors. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are divine. But I have to agree that Fincher didn't suit this film much at all. For whatever reason.

And the Forest Gump comparison is airtight. Too many ways they can be compared to each other for my liking.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous and Laura. It seems like the majority of people who check in at Coleman's Corner did not feel very differently from me about this one. Not that that matters. But thank you both for the kind words.

Laura said...

I keep reading this review. So many brilliant thoughts. I agree with it completely.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Laura.

Anonymous said...

Best review I've seen of this one on the Net.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

this review is bitchin

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.