Monday, March 23, 2009

The Tedious Case of Benjamin Button

Did I say tedious? Good.

The film starts, in a similar fashion to P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, with a prelude that is not directly related to the bulk of the story but which is meant to underline its themes. It tells of a blind clockmaker whose son goes off to fight in World War I, only to be killed. The clockmaker is commissioned to build a clock for the New Orleans train station and, upon its unveiling, reveals that the clock will only run backwards. The clockmaker says that he has done this in the hope that time will run backwards, and all the young men who died will come back to life. It's a beautiful, moving little segment that, in isolation, would make a wonderful short film.

It is, however, pointless and unnecessary, when considered against the overall narrative about a man who ages backwards (Brad Pitt) and his lifelong love (Cate Blanchett) set against a backdrop of major events of the twentieth century. This is one of many problems that weigh the film down. There are too many distracting flourishes and ancillary characters, and even though many work on their own, they ultimately prevented me from getting interested in Benjamin. Sure, scenes of a man being repeatedly hit by lightning are funny, but what purpose do they serve? Sure, Jason Flemyng is brilliant as Benjamin's dad, but why go to such lengths to distance him from Benjamin, making any connection the two develop seem artificial and any attempts to tug at the heartstrings cynical? When such events are woven into the themes of the movie, such as a sequence in which Benjamin meets a woman in Moscow (Tilda Swinton) who teaches him about love, they work, but the first hour and a half is so disjointed and flabby that I found myself feeling completely detached by the time that Benjamin and Daisy got together.

It is ironic that by the time that Benjamin reached his forties I had lost interest because that section is probably the most interesting part. Thanks to the contrivances of the plot, Benjamin and Daisy find themselves consummating their relationship when they are more or less the same age, allowing them to have a period of happiness as a more or less normal couple. However, Benjamin comes to realise that their relationship cannot last as they would be unable to grow old together; they would always be going in opposite directions. It's a moment rife with possibilities and there is poignancy to these scenes, so overshadowed are they by what must come next. I just could not bring myself to care about them, as the preceding hour and a half of needless plot meanderings and vacuous preamble had drained me of all enthusiasm and sympathy that I might at one point have had. I merely observed what was happening with mild disinterest, marvelling at the splendour of the visuals but indifferent to the emotions that were meant to be conveyed.

The single saving grace of the film is its visual aesthetic. That and the direction. Okay, the two saving graces of the film are its visual aesthetic and its direction. And the crisp editing. Okay, that's enough of that. In all seriousness, it is a glorious film to watch. You could take any frame from it, blow it up and stick it on canvas, it really is that lovely. The sober greens and sombre browns that comprise the palette of the film give it a subdued mood that perfectly fits the story and the themes it tries to evoke. David Fincher's direction is also superb and he has a complete grasp of the technical side of things, whether it be the truly awe-inspiring World War II naval battle or the small touches involved in making Brad Pitt seem both youthful and elderly at the same time. Over his last two films, Fincher has proved himself to be a craftsman of the highest order; it's just a shame that his talents are misspent on something that is so undeserving of his attention.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a visually stunning film that comports itself throughout with a painterly grace. Unfortunately, like a painting , it is inert; a thing of beauty which is itself lifeless. It is occasionally amusing, frequently dull, repeatedly ridiculous (yes, I know it's a film about a man that ages backwards but that doesn't mean it gets a free pass for all that stuff with the hummingbird) and always portentous. It is a film that so often decrees its importance that it can only highlight its impotence. Overlong, overblown and over here, it is a film that has such promise but ultimately delivers nothing. It's a bauble, a trinket; pretty, but hollow and disposable.