Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Curious Case of the Overlong Movie

Susan and I went a couple days ago to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The previews reminded me of Big Fish, whimsical and stylized; but the screenplay comes from David Roth, who also wrote Forrest Gump, and the movie reminded me of that one as well, even before I realized there was a common link between them. Both films are highly nostalgic.

Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells (as the previews make clear) of a man who is born extremely old and grows younger and younger until he dies as an infant. Along the way he interacts with people as people do in life, and with a few key relationships the fact that he ages the wrong way comes into play.

But not for most of them. I kept wondering during the film and afterward whether this main schtick--a fella going through life in the wrong direction, as it were--really worked, whether this was a viable concept for a story or whether there was any payoff for the twist. And I just don't think there was. With his few key relationships, there is a sense that he is growing away from others, that his life's direction will diverge from that of his friends; but watching people we love age and die before us is an actual fact of life. In that sense, the movie does not introduce a meaningful concept. And if there is a case to be made for how the different stages of life relate to wisdom and experience, I don't think this movie really lays it before us. In a broad sense, normal life involves a rich and functional middle period flanked on either side by shorter periods of diminished capability or capacity. Benjamin Button's life span is of normal length, and he follows this broad pattern, even if the particulars are reversed. He is born old, but not wise or experienced. He dies a baby, but his mind is flushed of all he learned up to that moment, so that this big twist just doesn't amount to anything. Only with his adoptive mother (played by Taraji Henson) and his lover (Cate Blanchett) does his reverse-aging come into play, and then with a bit of poignance. But that's a few minutes of the movie.

Beyond this observation, though, it was an entertaining film, albeit too long by about a third. 2:46 is just too long to sit through any but the most gripping movies. Brad Pitt--how to say it?--is rather stunning to look at as a young man. In Burn After Reading, he plays an air-headed bimbo, and that film's producers talked about the difficulty involved in making him look like a doofus as the role required. But in Benjamin Button they were under no such orders. He begins, via a series of special effects, as a hideous old-man infant, and progresses through decrepitude and wizened old age before finding his sturdy middle age. But as he regresses through his 30s and 20s he becomes increasingly more handsome and dashing until, even to me, he's quite breathtaking. I can't help thinking that any man who doesn't want to look like a 20-year-old Brad Pitt either has fetish issues or is a liar. Much like my own reaction to anything with Gwyneth Paltrow in it, my wife could not find a single thing to complain about in the movie, thanks no doubt to that central 45 minutes where The Brad is in top form.

But there's not a movie to be made of Brad Pitt's beauty, even if it helps distract one from the DVT caused by too damn long in a sticky theater seat. The movie is fun to look at, and evocative with Benjamin's old motorcycle and his work on a fishing boat in rough water. I didn't dislike the film, and I wasn't sorry I went. But there's just a sense that the film world is no better off for this movie being in it.

And that's not much of an endorsement.

Grade: B-


dbackdad said...

While I liked the movie more than you, I, as always, enjoyed your review. And I can't really disagree with any of your assessments.

wunelle said...

Yeah, maybe that last sentence or two was a bit harsh. I don't regret going, so it can't be all bad!