Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Curious Case of Nihilism

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gives us the tale of a man who ages in reverse. Ironic enough, given that we have seen this movie before. Button is famously similar to Forrest Gump, another work from the same screenwriter. Alas, while the plot structure remains the same, all the charm is gone.

Forrest Gump told the story of a simple man who had more amazing opportunities than anyone deserves to have in his lifetime. That the film is plausible (much less entertaining) is a testament to its adherence to its own internal logic. Tom Hanks’ Gump compensates for his intellectual shortcomings by being remarkably forthright. His wealth and fame are the fruits of his honesty, loyalty and goodness.

Brad Pitt’s Button is also simple, but he is neither loyal nor good. He enjoys three things: Sex, booze and contemporary fashion. His quest for both sends him aboard a ship, to New York, to Europe, and even to a hotel basement to eat caviar with Tilda Swinton for some reason. He sleeps with prostitutes, inherits a company, buys property and makes love to Cate Blanchett in beautiful locales.

Ostensibly, one could argue that his opportunities stem from the fact that he seems more experienced than he is. But the film isn’t interested in exploring this possibility, or the consequences thereof (though Button does consume too much alcohol at one point). Aside from his spectacular medical condition, Benjamin Button is a spectacular bore. Why everyone takes a liking to him is beyond me.

But everyone does, especially Daisy. Introduced as a child, and then later played by Cate Blanchett, Daisy sees something special in Button. Their childhood friendship (very) gradually develops into a love affair. She, of course, ages normally, so mathematics dictates that they appear the same age just before she hits menopause.


So they have a kid. Shortly thereafter, in a fit of consternation about the aging backward thing, Button leaves his wife to travel to very photographable places. That’s a very selfish thing to do, but the movie applauds him, as does Daisy.


Ultimately, this is the curious thing about Benjamin Button. The movie wants us to love him (hence the casting of Brad Pitt), but he isn’t lovable. Pitt doesn’t do the film any favors, proving why, in spite of his looks, he really isn’t leading man material. Short of a stilted New Orleans drawl and a vacant stare, he doesn’t really do anything other than wear varying degrees of unconvincing makeup.

Button also employs one of the most bizarrely underutilized framing devices in cinematic history. The film is told in flashback, from a New Orleans hospital in the hours before Hurricane Katrina. What is the significance of this? Is it symbolic of Pitt’s journey? Is life like a box of hurricanes? You can’t just set a movie against the backdrop of one of the greatest disasters in American history without explaining why.

There is no particular justification for the film’s substantial length. Each scene exists (and many succeed) as a sort of vignette, and these vignettes are strung together like postcards. Why, then, are we treated to flash-forwards of a daughter opening postcards of the experience we just saw? This sort of monotony seems to exist to pad the running time to “epic standards”.

As you can tell from the previews, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is lavishly filmed. It’s a nice looking movie, and director David Fincher does his able best to make lemonade out Eric Roth’s bland lemon stew. But ultimately, if you don’t care about the title character, you are unlikely to care about the movie.

If a Forrest Gump was a moral fable, Button is a celebration of nihilism.


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