Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Retro Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

 So this may be different for all of you out there, but I'm pretty sure the Cap'n was the only person who didn't groan when the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button played before Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. All of my friends seemed to immediately write the film off as "bad" or "stupid" or "boring" and it seemed like the critics were ready to do it too. They gravitated towards the fact that screenwriter Eric Roth also wrote Forrest Gump, which also happens to be a movie about a guy with crutches who lives through events in the Twentieth Century and has an on again, off again romance, so obviously they're exactly the same, right? I mean, Forrest Gump was on a boat, and so is Benjamin Button! Lazy!!!

 Yeah, so that happened. I remember because nobody wanted to see it and eventually I gave up on trying to watch it theatrically. I was actually pretty excited about it because David Fincher was following up the really engrossing Zodiac with Button, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I had come to respect the choices Brad Pitt made as he moved beyond "Hollywood hunk" to "movie star who liked to pick interesting roles." It seemed like an interesting premise, and if anything I was maybe worried that a 27 page story didn't necessarily need to be a 166 minute movie. But David Fincher doesn't exactly make short movies, so you just take that in stride. In no way was I so put off by the runtime that I dismissed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

 So when a friend of mine from college asked me to take a look back at the film (something I don't think I ever reviewed in 2008-9), I thought it might be fair to give it a bit of a defense, as people occasionally bemoan its status as part of the Criterion Collection (though nowhere near to the degree that Armageddon gets it*). Generally the film is forgotten as blip in Fincher's filmography, between Zodiac and The Social Network, two critically lauded and well regarded films that deserve the attention they received.

 To begin with, I should note that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not one of my favorite David Fincher films. It's not my least favorite: that belongs to Panic Room, which is technically well made but mostly pretty boring. It's the only reason I knew who Kristen Stewart was when I saw Catch That Kid, which for being a pretty lousy kiddie movie is still more interesting than all of Panic Room (except maybe for the horrible things that happen to Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam). Button is too long, it doesn't seem to be going much of anywhere for long stretches in the middle, and I really didn't like the digitally "young-ifying" effects for Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that essentially make them look like wax versions of themselves. No shocker that it was the same company who made Jeff Bridges into "young Flynn / CLU" in Tron: Legacy. You have a long way to go before that technique is going to work, gang.

 So The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't a masterpiece, but it's also not a movie you need to instantly write off. If you're willing to sit down with it and have an open mind, and if you don't sit there with you "Forrest Gump to Benjamin Button" conversion table, you might even enjoy most of the experience.

 For example, while the "young" Benjamin (Pitt) and Daisy (Blanchett) look like waxy versions of themselves, the "old" Benjamin Button is nothing short of astonishing. The "baby" is a little shaky, but as Benjamin begins to age backwards, it's tricky to tell when he stops being an effect and becomes Brad Pitt with makeup on. The seamless integration of a completely digital character into the film for the first half(?) only draws further attention to the ineffective "youth" effects applied to Daisy in her twenties and Benjamin as he grows younger / older.

 I also don't feel that, while overlong, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is ever particularly boring. It takes a long time to get where it's going (the bookend segments taking place as hurricane Katrina is arriving on the Gulf Coast) but I wasn't checking my watch during the film. When it was over, I certainly felt like I'd watched a long film, but I didn't regret having seen it, or felt like time was better spent watching something else. It's not simply a slog through history for its own sake - there is a compelling story in there, and as it moves into the final quarter of the film I found myself more invested in Daisy and Benjamin's story.

 But hey, let's be honest here. If you saw the trailer and rolled your eyes, this isn't going to change your mind. To you, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a bore, a movie by a director who you enjoyed before and afterwards, but this one was worth skipping. Maybe you groaned when it nabbed some Oscar nominations and silently cheered when it didn't win any major ones. So it's not a perfect film, it's not the best version of that story there could possibly be. I know for a fact many of you sat through worse and made excuses for it, and so did I. Maybe giving The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a shot isn't too much to ask from where I'm sitting.

 * Also, Ride with the Devil, but I don't see the same people complaining about Chasing Amy for some reason.

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