Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"Button" up for a long, sad ride

At the beginning of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a man invents a clock that runs backward. He installs this regressive timepiece in a prominent spot at the local train station. His intention is silly but oddly noble. If time moves backward perhaps we can recover the lives of young men lost during World War I. Of course, the backward-moving clock also stands as a metaphor for what's about to happen to the movie's main character.

I'm sick of symbolic gestures in movies, but I let the business about the clock pass, hoping I'd become absorbed in "Benjamin Button's" rhythms regardless of which way its clock happened to be running. But for too much of its 167-minute running time, "Benjamin Button" feels as if the clock's not running at all. David Fincher, a director with a taste for edgy and weird drama, takes a radical step away from his strong suit for a movie that doesn't really kick in until Cate Blanchett shows up and -- single-handedly, I think -- turns the proceedings into a mildly poignant romance.

Although "Benjamin Button" is an impressively massive undertaking, I found little reward in watching Benjamin, the movie's main character, evolve backward -- from a tiny, wizened and incredibly ugly infant (his birth) to a sweet-looking baby (just before his death). Benjamin is born an old man in a tiny body. He goes through old age and middle age before turning into a handsome young man played by Brad Pitt.

At least, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the short story on which the movie very loosely is based, had the good sense not let things drag on and, then, on some more. (Read the story on line.)

I'd say I struggled through roughly half of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," an admittedly good looking movie with lots of intriguing digital effects, particularly when it comes to playing games with perspective. I warmed to the rest, but can't say that "Button," which was shot on digital video, is the emotional blockbuster that may have been intended. I'd be surprised if "Benjamin Button" is omitted from Oscar's best-picture short list, but I propose that all talk of a masterpiece be chalked up to seasonal overstatement. And, yes, there's a lot of it going around.

With nary a serial killer in sight, Fincher ("Se7en" and "Zodiac") moves as close as he can to sentiment in a tale that attempts to deal with love, loss and the transient nature of...well...just about everything.

Fincher has taken on a difficult task. In truth, Benjamin Button -- the character at the center of Fincher's mini-epic -- isn't all that interesting. He's the kind of empty vessel that already has prompted some to compare "Benjamin Button" to another popular epic, "Forrest Gump." But for Button, played for most of the movie by Pitt, life isn't like a box of chocolates; it's like a balloon that deflates, exhaling sad vapors as it shrivels.

Although much of the movie can be turgid, I'd certainly like to see more of Taraji P. Henson, who plays the woman who takes Benjamin in after his father (Jason Flemyng) abandons him at the doorstep of an old age home. Benjamin's mother has died in childbirth, and dad, taking one look at his withered son, is repelled by what surely must be the most hideous baby ever, a miniature replica of an old man that looks as if it might have sprung from the mind of David Lynch. No question, the early scenes are technically interesting, but that's not enough to turn a movie into a classic.

As time marches on, the baby begins to look more recognizably human. In his backward march -- somewhere around the age of 50 -- Benjamin comes into contact with a variety of characters, including a hard-drinking tugboat captain (Jared Harris) who takes him to Russia. There he meets a British swimmer (Tilda Swinton) with whom he has an affair. Benjamin's also enlisted -- along with the rest of the tug's crew -- to fight in World War II. A walk down this kind of picaresque path should be revealing, but the movie seems less interested in saying something about WWW II than in noting that Benjamin participated. It's as if the screenplay raises a semaphore: See, history is happening!

The best thing about "Benjamin Button" are the peripherals. The costumes, make-up and effects are first-rate, but emotional involvement remains low as Fincher concentrates on the Olympian view. I perked up when the movie gets around to telling us the story of how Benjamin woos the love of his life (Cate Blanchett's character), someone he knew in childhood and who has grown up to be a ballet dancer.

All of this is revealed through a framing device. Blanchett's Daisy tells Benjamin's story to her grown daughter (Julia Ormond) just before dying in a New Orleans hospital that's about to be besieged by a hurricane that not only brings wind and rain, but heavy metaphoric weather. Had Fincher, working from a script by Eric Roth (who wrote "Forrest Gump"), begun the movie about an hour and a half-in, he might have sounded a truly heartbreaking chord.

But "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" rattles on for two hours and 47 minutes. There's more movie than meat here. and that, in my estimation, will remain true whether "Benjamin Button" wins a best-picture Oscar nomination or not.

No comments: