Tuesday, December 23, 2008

REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I’m not really sure how I ever made it through Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Barry Lyndon, but boy was I glad I did. By the end, I found it without a doubt Kubrick’s most involving film, one of the few he did that I actually truly cared about the characters. But it wasn’t because I was told to. And even when I went back to it a second time I couldn’t figure out how Kubrick got me to care about this guy. But I remember watching the film for the first time, specifically the final duel, and there’s that moment when Lord Bullingdon says, “I have not received satisfaction,” and it all came to stark relief. Everything that had taken place prior to this moment came crashing down. Kubrick doesn’t linger on it long, he doesn’t indulge in it – Ryan O’Neil gives a slight shift in his face, but there are few moments in film that I’ve felt so acutely. And even though there were very few moments in the rest of the film that engaged me as actively as that moment did, that they all added up to this was staggering.

It takes a really refined touch to pull that off. I should say that I was able to revel much more in the specific moments of Barry Lyndon the second time around (due in no small part to the second viewing being on the big screen), but I do really, really wonder how Kubrick pulled me through that first viewing, in which I’m basically following a character who takes almost no active part in the shaping of his destiny (for Button detractors, this will start to sound familiar). Maybe it was the imagery – Barry Lyndon is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen, but I was watching it on a 19-inch TV. Maybe it was the narration, or the myriad of interesting supporting characters. Maybe it was just that elusive quality of the cinema.

And yes, this does bring me to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of a man born old and dying young, a film that is, as Barry Lyndon is, intermittently engaging and wonderful, and ultimately really, truly moving. But the difference is that Barry Lyndon is never outright bad – even though the first viewing is occasionally like slugging through molasses, there are no false moments in the film. It all works, every frame of it.

Benjamin Button isn’t a bad film, exactly. As I said, it’s ultimately incredibly rewarding, and is always visually stunning, a phrase some critics often use without consideration and as a way to slight the story, but I mean it. In fact, story is really, really good. Refined, well-wrought. Develops at a wonderful pace. The structure is solid, aside from the framing device that should have just been cut down to a five-minute scene at the end of the film. A few writerly indulgences (how did Benjamin know that a girl who works at a random chocolate shop broke up with her boyfriend? Beyond overindulgent, that scene just doesn’t make any sense), but I’ll let them slide. And the shots do a hell of a job expressing the story.

It’s just that the dialogue is way too much. Often ridiculous, but at the very least way, way overwritten, it undermines the visuals and the story, which are otherwise able to serve each other in perfect harmony. There are some inspired lines here or there – “They said I was gonna die soon but, maybe not” is pretty genius, even if it’s an absurd thing to say – but quite often the dialogue rings terribly false, is overly metaphoric, or worst of all, is simply redundant, especially the voiceover, which mostly just describes the onscreen action. It’s when the film just shuts its characters up that it hits those moments of awe, and I can’t imagine what kind of film we’d have on our hands if someone had torn the dialogue down to Marienbad levels (oh, to have a music-only track for this film on the DVD…).

You know, we’d probably have something like the teaser trailer that played before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. After seeing that I was sure we’d have a masterpiece on our hands, and I suppose if this film was truly the one the trailer sold, we would. Actually, and I mean this sincerely, if it really took this much money and development and whatever else to create something as perfect as that one-minute, forty-second short film (which is really what it is, because if you’re paying attention, it tells the entire story with far more grace than the 168-minute feature film), then it was worth it. Then again, I didn’t foot the bill.

I’ve been careful to say “the film” when referring to its strengths and weaknesses, though others may level the blame at director David Fincher. And maybe it is his fault, I don’t know. But it strikes me that screenwriter Eric Roth is at a point in his career when his script is more or less the final word. Obviously Roth wrote the words, so the words that we hear are largely his doing, but if Fincher at any point had the opportunity to start taking some of those words out, he really, really should have. But, again, it’s an expensive film with its eye on every Oscar available, so quite often the artistic whims get beaten out of the film.

This does make it all the more wonderful when Fincher’s allowed to let his craft explore the art. It’s important to keep in mind that the majority of the film – everything showing Benjamin’s life – is told as Benjamin remembers it at age 67. Plot threads are left hanging, some of the imagery is a little overindulgent. But as this is a memory, when we reach the montage of Benjamin and Daisy at sea, well…that’s the way such a trip would feel to me. The film might reach just beyond the point of realism, but what place has realism in the cinema? Better to find something a little more expressive. It’s in these respects, and many others, that I really have to hand it to Fincher. Whatever other mistakes he may have contributed to, the things that were definitely under his control are absolute masterstrokes. Fincher continues to demonstrate that he’s way ahead of many of his peers in terms of composition, and his integration of effects work both computer generated and practical continues to put him at the absolute forefront of contemporary cinema.

The film itself results a little unevenly, though, and there’s a clear pull between the art and the plot. If you subscribe exclusively to auteurism, then this film will undoubtedly appear to you a masterpiece. If you see cinema as largely a written medium, you’ll find the film a mess. As it is, the sum may be greater than the parts, a tough thing to achieve in any narrative art form, but the parts are too often severely lacking to be the sort of true masterpiece I know I was hoping for.

Scott can be reached at Snye@megazinemedia.com

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