The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – 2008′s Best Saved For Last? Maybe
I begrudgingly admit that if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not the best film I’ve seen this year, it’s pretty close. But this does make me sad. The film is so overwhelmingly right most of the time that I find my list of problems with it growing as I ponder it.
Let’s take a look at what’s right with Benjamin Button first, then let me nitpick it to death for you.
If you weren’t aware, this film is an “epic” style fictional biopic of a man who is born old and ages backward. The film takes us from his “infancy” and covers every major stage of his life.
The make up and the digital effects are, to parrot most everyone who’s seen the film, astoundingly good. As impressive as the work is to make Brad Pitt look “old” through childhood, teen and early adulthood, some of the most incredible work happens late in the film when they digitally “de-age” him into a pre-20 young man. There was some similarly impressive work in X-Men 3 when they used digital effects to make Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look 20 years younger. The effects in Button blow those out of the water.
The make up effects for Cate Blanchett are at least as impressive, probably more. We see both Blanchett’s and Pitt’s characters at all ages throughout the film, from youth to old age. The highest praise I can offer the make up effects team is that anyone going into this movie not knowing the actress Cate Blanchett’s true age will leave the film still having absolutely no idea how old she really is. If nothing else, there are golden statues waiting for the effects and make-up artists.
The story is well told, underplayed, and thought provoking. It’s a well-written, solid piece of drama that’s played out in a simple directorial style by David Fincher and full of award-worthy performances by the leads. Brad Pitt is one of the people on the planet that pisses me off no end: a good-looking, brick-built heartthrob who can pull off performances all over the spectrum with seemingly no effort. He’s excellent here. One doesn’t really have to look further than watching Pitt in Benjamin Button, Burn After Reading, and Oceans 11 (or 12, or 13), and see what phenomenal range he has. While his accent in Button is a tad overwhelming at stages, I can’t really fault that with his performance since I feel that way listening to real people with Cajun accents speak.
I believe Pitt is so all-around threatening to the rest of the male species that his ultimate fate is to be run down on the street by hordes of fat, forty-something, balding men wanting to slightly increase their lifetime chances of getting laid…all in the spirit of survival of the fittest, of course.
The film is full of pretty straightforward imagery and symbolism. It’s not one of those movies where 600 page dissertations can be written about why one character’s sock was higher than the other. This is about as deep a film of this style can get and still have the full appeal of a wide audience.
Benjamin Button is probably going to be the hot contender for Best Picture, and may deserve it. Pitt’s probably going to get a nod for Best Actor, and probably has an infinitely better chance than Heath Ledger does for The Dark Knight, though I don’t necessarily think he deserves it more than Ledger (there’s at least one performance this year that I liked better than both).
After it was all said and done, the film really did take just a little bit of a sour turn for me with about 30 minutes left in the 2 hour and 45 minute run time. Likewise, at no point during the film did it ever exceed that “wow” meter mark either. Usually, when I see movie that has “historic” implications there’s a point where it just passes the point of no return and reaches a crescendo where it’s unquestionably something special. Button never did that for me. Instead it was just consistently interesting and good without ever turning that corner.
The story reached a point where I had an extremely hard time identifying with some decisions made by the characters. That, coupled with some creative issues with the screenplay the whole thing just kind of let me down toward the end of the final act.
In any film, I am willing to accept without question one extraordinary assumption that I’m asked to make as member of the audience. In this case, that assumption is that this human being, for whatever scientific or paranormal reason, ages backwards. After that leap –which I had no problem making for the sake of drama– I did have some problems with the writer following the “rules” that are set forth from the beginning about this assumption. Without delving into spoiler territory, I felt that screenwriter Eric Roth bent those rules too much to accommodate the needs of the story. He broke his own rule set. That’s irritating. Even if I’m willing to accept it, it takes me out of the film to have ponder or justify it for the sake of buying into the story beginning to end. Maybe this is a nitpick, but my logical side is at least asking the screenwriter to stick to the rules established.
Now the Benjamin Button apologists are going to retort that it’s inconsequential because the movie is about the characters and it just does not matter. My completely indisputable response to this is “yes it does matter.” And that’s all I have to say about that.
My other nitpick is based around a decision that Benjamin Button makes in regards to his relationship with Blanchett’s character, Daisy. The decision he makes, the justification for it and the actions he finally take at the time he takes them tear the character down and just slipped me into a position of being unable to relate anymore with his moral judgment.
This really strikes at the heart of the ultimate weakness that the film had in my eyes as far as my gut reaction to the entire piece. Even though the movie is told through the eyes of Benjamin Button and narrated by him, there’s a cold distance from that character that we never seem to be able to penetrate. As much as we learn about him, his adventures and life, I don’t feel that we ever fully relate to him on a human level.
These things really held the film back for me personally.
There’s no question that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is quite an achievement. It’s a wonderful movie and it’s going to be recognized as such. However, when I look back and compare it to a handful of other films this year that are going to be Oscar contenders, there’s no doubt in my mind that there are at least two movies that are overall more solid packages than Benjamin Button. However, the things Button gets right are probably as good as or much better “rights” than the any other 2008 film I can compare it with.
It’s long and it’s moderately paced but certainly doesn’t carry its excessive length as unwanted baggage. Even with its flaws, it holds steady all the way through. It’s certainly a recommendation, unquestionably a great date movie, and a film that you know 10 minutes in is destined to rip your heart out of your chest by the end. And it does.
When the credits rolled, though, my big beef ended up being that even though I am willing to accept almost anything for the sake of bringing me a solid, entertaining story, I am NOT willing to accept anything AND everything.
Mike “ScuzzBuster” Broda is a film critic and editorial writer for Deviant Knowledge, an entertainment/leisure blog.
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