Saturday, July 11, 2009
REVIEW - "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008)
Oscar bait. The quintessential trump card directors play to be loved by the ever so political Academy. James Cameron accomplished it with “Titanic,” Danny Boyle of course did it with “Slumdog Millionaire,” and David Fincher attempts it here. Now, I don’t want to immediately say that these are examples of directors “selling out.” Some would consider making films like “The Terminator” or “28 Days Later” a sell out. But, in a sense, these filmmakers are letting go of all their ingenious strengths in order to get a statue— What should you call it? Unfortunately, kissing up to the Oscar bigwigs doesn’t pay off for David Fincher. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is one of his weaker films.
The title character (played by Brad Pitt) is born with a ‘curious’ condition of aging backwards. He grows with his foster mother and enjoys a fruitful life of adventure aided by his glamor enchanted love interest, Daisy. (Cate Blanchette)
With a narration that becomes more distracting than helpful, Benjamin Button aspires to be that character we all want be— A man so curious about life he ends up traveling the world, volunteering for war, taking up peculiar jobs and hunting down the woman of his dreams. If this sounds familiar, it should. Forrest Gump did the exact same thing and with greater emotional success than "Benjamin Button." It’s not that Benjamin Button isn’t a strong lead, he’s simply too familiar. Fincher gives us the epic character like he’s based off a textbook. Such an approach damages a larger portion of the film's drama.
Although Benjamin’s cookie-cutter adventures tend to drag, the movie at least looks good while he’s doing it. The make-up effects aren’t the only exceptional visuals in the film. Sporting some beautiful, period appropriate architecture, from buildings to boats, “Benjamin Button” looks almost surreal in its accuracy. This adds a suitable hint of wonder behind the lead character’s condition. His changes are just as noticeable as the surroundings'.
While most of the movie rides on its brilliant shots, it doesn’t truly become interesting until Benjamin’s later years. Watching how his relationship unfolds with the aging Daisy becomes the story arc audiences are impatiently waiting for. Though his condition appropriately remains ambiguous, it doesn’t become of real interest until he watches himself age the opposite direction of Daisy. It’s simply a shame the movie takes so long to get to this point.
Because of the flimsy attention to each story arch, I’m not entirely convinced of Fincher’s investment in the film. With “Fight Club,” “Se7en” and “Zodiac” he ages his characters like a fine wine— Empowering them with a certain love that allows them to develop naturally and face their demons head on. Here, his characters feel like they’re being pushed to different areas just to keep the movie rolling. It’s as if Fincher forces Benjamin to age, stops him to tell a subplot, (that may or may not be interesting) and then rolls him again until the next speed bump.
This isn’t to say there aren’t bright moments. One of the better stories in the film is Benjamin’s relationship with Elizabeth Abbott. What begins as a harmful affair later pays the audience with a message of childlike hope. While the “follow your dreams” moral may sound cliché, it’s also an underused one in this day and age. (So perhaps its not that cliché.) Currently, world economy is at a terrible low, and countries are full of people unhappy with their jobs. Knowing this, I’m glad Fincher has it in him to tell people not to settle for anything they can grab and continue to dream big. Personally, I believe pushing to do what you love has to be one of the most admirable things a single person can accomplish. Making a movie based on this idea is ballsy only because so many might miss it. It’s become a foreign idea, but I applaud Fincher for pitching it.
There is no doubt in my mind Fincher has the talent to make a movie look good. The proof is all over "Benjamin Button." But if he’s going to go that far he should at least refrain from keeping his lead character restricted to a stereotype. The epic character doesn’t have to look like Forrest Gump. On the other hand a great director doesn’t have to own an Oscar either. I believe Spielberg was great long before he won an Oscar. Chris Nolan hasn’t even been nominated, but he has more talent than the creative energy of most directors combined. Fincher’s “sell out” to the Academy isn’t his greatest failing, but it’s a sign of needless desperation. Just make a good movie. Fewer and fewer Oscar flicks hit that bar these days.
**½ out of ****