Friday, December 05, 2008

Screen Alert - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Curious, Indeed

Screen Alert is a short, irregular segment highlighting noteworthy films that we saw during advanced screenings. Keep an eye out for these cinematic gems when they hit theaters.

After much thought, I decided to put Brad Pitt’s latest film on Screen Alert. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (in theatres December 25th), starring Pitt as the titular character, a man born as an 84 year old baby who ages in reverse, is as much a historical epic as it is a love story. Covering everything from love to life, death, birth, acceptance, death, age, death, and the progression of time, the film raises and attempts to answer a number of deeply thought provoking questions.

Probably the most interesting question, at least to me, is how a child who looks like an arthritic 80 year old when he’s celebrating his 7th birthday gains acceptance, first in boyhood, and then at every other stage in his oddly destined life. At nearly three hours long, BENJAMIN BUTTON has plenty of time to dissect not only the answer, but the question. With a sweeping biopic such as this, it’s inevitable that certain parts of the character’s life simply won’t be addressed or will be glazed over. Button is no exception, but I’m confident in saying that as an audience member, I felt as though the biggest points I wondered about were all touched on at some point or other. Life and death, as all of the characters openly recognize – Benjamin in fact grows up in an assisted living facility, which I thought was a brilliant choice – is an ever going cycle that cannot be fought. Benjamin, though unique in how he experiences those inevitabilities, openly acknowledges that he cannot compare it to a normal life, as he has only seen it through his own eyes. Life and death are accepted by everyone in this picture, as is Benjamin’s condition. Ultimately, the question in the film is love, not whether it’s real – for, ask anyone in Benjamin’s world, and they will tell you that it is unquestionably so – but how many times we are fortunate enough to experience it.

Arguably the most interesting element of the picture – one that the producers willingly recognize – is the logistics behind Button’s reverse aging. “He’s 30 years old now, but he should look… how old?” or “OK, he looks like a tween, but he’s showing signs of his true age (70) in what ways?” I found myself trying to work out the math a few times during the picture, and I can guarantee I wasn’t the only one doing that. Granted, with pretty-boy Brad Pitt playing the protagonist, the filmmakers are going to want to get as much mileage out of his face as possible. For the most part, I think they were pretty true to the logic of the film. I did wonder if he de-aged a bit too quickly at one point, but after a little math, was able to convince myself that the timing worked out. Furthermore, all the while Benjamin is aging down, everyone around him is aging up. As Cate Blanchett’s character recognizes at one point, she and Benjamin are aging from opposite ends and “meeting in the middle.” The middle, though, in Benjamin’s universe is nearly a lifetime long, as he finds acceptance and companionship the entire time.

Visually, the picture is quite beautiful. The make-up artists who worked on Pitt – he’s on-screen the entire time, not once substituted for an older or younger actor (except a baby) – brought a new level of effects to film makeup, and if they don’t earn an Oscar for their work, I don’t know who will. The digital shooting captures a warm, often sepia feel that’s quite inviting.

My primary gripe, and it’s not really a small one, is that Benjamin Button – as the producers also recognized – is the kind of character that writers will receive an endless bombardment of studio notes for. He’s completely passive. With few exceptions at all, he goes through life observing and reacting, and for that reason, the movie, especially in the beginning, dragged on a bit too long for me. The strength lies in the reversal of the age (at 16 he look 70, and at 70 he looks 16), but watching any other boy have his first drink, his first sexual encounter, his first wife would be nowhere near as engaging. BENJAMIN BUTTON gets away with a lot based on the ingenuity of the protagonist’s situation. Nevertheless, those of you looking to see a movie where the stakes continually raise, where the action and the character drive the plot forward, where the main character takes the horse by the reins and steers the picture will be disappointed.

I was also turned off by the fact that the story was set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. While New Orleans was a perfect setting, the decision to end (not a spoiler at all) with the levees breaking did not add anything to the story for me, and actually grounded this otherwise gripping fantasy in something much more tangible and immediate, and that killed some of the magic for me.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON hopes to be a breath of fresh air, a reminder to Hollywood that the industry can and should support historical epics. It works visually and is interesting enough to sustain its running time (though a shorter version could have worked, too). Depending on your mood, this can be an overwhelmingly powerful film on love and life well lived despite what seem to be insurmountable obstacles, and the acting and make-up are top notch. A real head-scratcher, BENJAMIN BUTTON’s weak spot (to those who think it has one) will inevitably come from its meandering pace and observant, inactive protagonist. Ultimately, this is a Screen Alert (though I’ll forgive you this one time if you wait for DVD), because though it can be slow, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is an example of an epic biopic that all writers should study.