Monday, December 15, 2008

Movies: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Here is another case of a tough director making a sappy movie strung together with the faulty flashback device. Worse, it's a case of a screenwriter taking a perfectly poignant short story that meditates on existential truths and inflating it to the point of bursting with all varieties of Hollywood/fairy tale (for aren't they the same?) nonsense, star-crossed lovers in particular.

The most serious flaw with Benjamin Button is the structure: in an attempt to tell the life story of a man born old, who grows younger until he quietly passes away as a baby in swaddling clothes at the age of 80, the screenwriter resorts to the favored technique of the magical-real epic: the reading of the hero's story by a tangentially-related character (in this case Button's daughter, now a woman in her 40s, a smoker eating jell-o snack cups in a hospital room as she watches her mother's wheezing death while Hurricane Katrina roils outside the windows). As I've explained before, this structure creates a "dunking" effect, in which the audience is plunged repeatedly into the waters of the story only to be pulled out, sputtering, back to the "present," the "real," the hospital room. We do not enjoy the sensation.

Worse, each dunk serves as an instant fast-forward to another "chapter"—for Benjamin, another age, for the world around him, another society—so that director Fincher invests his energy in creating 5-15 minute lifestyle montages, rather than ever probing his characters for depth. Epic, and its sweeping grandiosity, is almost mocked, since Fincher gives us the encapsulated versions of five big-budget Hollywood films in one: the antebellum Southern black caretaker drama, the salty sea-faring adventure, the WWII tragedy, the 1960s love-in (complete with escape by motorcycle), and the Indian self-discovery adventure (and there are probably a few more I'm not presently recollecting).

After 159 very long minutes, what we have is less a sense of Button, his ageless love for recurring partner Daisy, or any deeper understanding of the human condition, so much as a demonstration of the kind of filmic scenography a big budget can buy, or (less sympathetically) a parade of the cliches on which writers rely when innovation is outside of their means. If this movie is successful, it will definitively confirm my fear that the average moviegoer desperately wants these cliches, is as comforted by them as the manual laborer by his Bud, and the sorority girl by her boyfriend's diamond: when their expectations are not subverted, nor exceeded, but simply met.

Had, say, Charlie Kaufman written this screenplay, we could rest assured that Daisy's name would have remained Hildegarde, and that Benjamin, as he grew young, would grow as dissatisfied with her as Fitzgerald suggests. For the essence of Fitzgerald's story is that everything in life—intelligence, success, power, beauty, pride, love—is fleeting, whether one ages backward or forward. This film, flirting with literary sacrilege, threatens precisely the opposite, that the soul and its bind to another are timeless, a dangerous fairy-tale indeed.

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