THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008)
As a rule, one hopes to judge a film on its merits alone, and not by any hype - any buzz - that might surround it. Yet even at the beginning, before frame one had been developed on it, I read the screenplay for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button amid a din akin to a hive of bees. The greatest screenplay of the decade, I was led to believe. My employer handed it to me with the preface "For my money, this is one of the best scripts I've ever read." High praise indeed. I was excited.
Flashback: college. The film is Amelie, and everyone talks it up like it's the second coming. By the time I do see it, my mind has been so readied for the greatest, most romantic, experience of my life, that a good movie never had a fair shot. Every flaw grew magnified when seen through that lens. And only time and multiple viewings have reconciled the film I hope to this day for it to be with the film it to this day remains.
My findings are simple, and time-tested, proven to be true: the more I like a screenplay, the faster I will read it. And I will go on to add that my prescience regarding the quality of a finished film based on reading the screenplay has been pretty spot on. My favorites stand out as great works independent of the films they eventually became. And my absolute number one fave, The Silence of the Lambs, still manages to terrify me even now, though I have read and reread it time and time again.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button took me roughly four hours to read. A long time. And I was left at the end not simply unmoved, but completely nonplussed. This was the script about which the entire town had been buzzing? This thoroughly and utterly unoriginal, derivative mo-lasses?
Written by Eric Roth, writer of Forrest Gump, the thing read as though a studio executive had come to Roth with the conceit - a man ages backwards - and the assignment to turn that conceit into Forrest Gump 2. Mission sort of accomplished. Consider:
a southern boy born into a body afflicted with a crippling ailment. Forrest Gump is unable to walk without the use of leg braces. Benjamin Button is born arthritic and dying of old age.
both boys gain the ability to walk properly through seemingly miraculous circumstances.
both boys fall in love at a young age with the girl who will be their Fermina Daza, loves lifelong and unrequited until one brief moment in young adulthood when the timing is just right. Their paths, of course, again diverge soon after, only to reconnect years later in a situation involving a child.
both boys are raised by a parent or parental figures who repeat a single piece of sage wisdom that the boy himself grows up to impart. In Forrest Gump, Forrest's mother teaches him that "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Benjamin Button, in an unsubtle attempt at creating another catchphrase, has both Queenie and Tizzy, Benjamin's step-parents, tell him that "You never know what's comin' for you." Both Forrest and Benjamin go on to repeat this motto to others in their lives.
both boys grow into dim bulbs of men, "pure of heart" but emotionally naive and so sympathetically vulnerable to the cruelties of the world.
both become enlisted in the military, and enter the service of an eccentric commanding officer known primarily by his title and first name. Lieutenant Dan, Captain Mike.
both serve alongside ostensibly eccentric fellow officers, introduced by way of a scene that was itself, in Forrest Gump, a takeoff on the original, unironic, scene in Apocalypse Now. Observe:
APOCALYPSE NOW: "The machinist, the one they called Chef, was from New Orleans. He was wrapped too tight for Vietnam, probably wrapped too tight for New Orleans. Lance on the forward 50's was a famous surfer from the beaches south of LA. You look at him and you wouldn't believe he ever fired a weapon in his whole life. Clean, Mr. Clean, was from some South Bronx shithole. Light and space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head. Then there was Phillips, the Chief. It might have been my mission, but it sure as shit was Chief's boat."
FORREST GUMP: "There was Dallas, from Phoenix. Cleveland, he was from Detroit. And Tex was, well, I don't remember where Tex come from."
BENJAMIN BUTTON: "We were a crew of seven now. Captain Mike and me... the Cookie, Prentiss Mayes from Wilmington, Delaware. The Brody twins, Rick and Vic, who got along fine at sea but for some reason, once they were on dry land, couldn't stand the sight of each other. There was John Grimm, who fit his name (John Grimm recites a figure about how one in eight boats never returns, all hands lost at sea), from Belvedere, South Dakota. And Pleasant Curtis, who never said a word to anyone except to himself." Oh, Pleasant Curtis, never spoke to anyone except himself! How ironic! How quirky! How many times must we sit through this scene, how many more Eric Roth scripts are going to ape it?
both men go "to war." Though in both films "war" consists of nothing more than several scenes of people waiting for something to happen, followed by one event in which most or all of the main character's compatriots are killed. At this point "war" is, for all intents and purposes, over and the main character goes home.
both men return from war and promptly become fortuitously wealthy through little personal effort and are therefore capable of living lives of whimsy.
Those are a few of the similarities. There are, of course, differences, though I hope you won't mistake that statement as an admission that this script has an original bone in its body.
For instance, Forrest Gump is a bit more proactive than Benjamin Button, who passively moves through life without making an active decision until near the end, when he consciously does one of the most despicable things a man can do. He abandons his family. The film, of course, intends for us to continue feeling empathy for Benjamin beyond that point, and so has one of the characters wounded by Benjamin's decision tell him he was right to do what he did, but his decision never feels right, morally or narratively. The script needs (or, rather, wants) this thing to happen, and so it happens, despite its complete incongruity with what we know of Benjamin up to that point.
One would think the near total passivity of the title character would have been a flaw evident at the screenplay stage (for the record, it was) but rarely have script problems slowed the production of a film once an A-list director has his momentum behind it, pushing it inevitably toward the screen whether ready or not.
But there are other problems that should have set off alarms. Problems that needed fixing before production should even have been considered. And there may be some minor spoilers contained below.
Benjamin's father is a wealthy button-maker whose sole competition is B.F. Goodrich and his zippers. How does this wealthy, successful man manage to abandon his child on the night he's born without any legal or social ramifications?
Tizzy is cooking while Benjamin learns to read the words on the cans of ingredients. Tizzy launches into a soliloquy from "Henry VI" before turning to young Benjamin and saying, "You thought I's plain ig'nant, didn't you?" To which the reader is compelled to respond... no, Benjamin is around seven years old in this scene. AND he's been raised thus far by African-American parents. My guess is no, Tizzy, Benjamin did not think you was just plain ig'nant. What I think you (and Queenie) are is yet another ethnic stereotype written by a writer with no sensitivity for characterization beyond broad strokes.
Pleasant Curtis finally speaks... to Benjamin! And he reveals that he has a wife back home, and that he hasn't spent any of his earnings so far, and should anything happen to him, would Benjamin please send his money back to his wife? He passes Benjamin a large roll of bills, at which point the reader is forced to consider... even if their boat does encounter an enemy vessel, wouldn't Benjamin have just as much chance of being killed as Pleasant Curtis? What a tragedy it would have been if Pleasant Curtis had entrusted all his earnings to Benjamin, and then been the sole survivor of the film's "big war event," having watched Benjamin fall overboard into the dark water, all of Pleasant's money in his pocket. Why would Pleasant make this choice? Does he have some unique insight into the charmed nature of Benjamin's life?
An old man in Benjamin's retirement home periodically reflects on the seven times in his life he was struck by lightning. These stories have no punchline, no payoff, no narrative significance... and we only hear five of them. Overlooking the pointlessness of these asides, why didn't Roth simply change the lines in the script to read "Did I ever tell you I've been struck by lightning FIVE times?" Such carelessness speaks volumes.
Daisy is the love of Benjamin's life. And yet after once uncomfortably denied a night together by Benjamin, she proceeds to spurn his advances for the decade or so that follows, finally deciding to give him the time of day when she's good and ready. Lucky for her, Benjamin has been waiting for her all along. Fermina Daza indeed. Like Florentino Ariza, though, Benjamin has not spent the intervening years in chastity. And this montage, highlighting his brief relationships in that time period, more than perhaps any other sequence in either the screenplay or the film accentuate how reprehensible and disingenuous his ultimate decision to leave Daisy and his daughter is. He plays it like his reasons are honorable, that he doesn't want his wife to have to raise both their daughter and him, that he doesn't want his daughter to grow up confused by his condition. But this sequence, and his voiceover throughout it, suggests his true reasons were completely and utterly douchebaggy. He wanted to see the world and sleep around without the burden of a family, and he used his condition to justify it.
The entire story is framed by a woman named Caroline sitting at Daisy's death bed, reading from Benjamin's diary. What good fortune that in the same box as this diary, Daisy has also, in perfect chronological order, kept all of his letters, as well as photographs of herself from her days as a popular ballerina. "You never talked about your dancing," says Caroline. A strange thing for her to say to her mother, who owned and operated a dance studio for the better part of Caroline's life.
Caroline laughs through tears as she reads the beginning of Benjamin's final letter to her (which, like all his other letters, he never sent): "It's never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be... I hope you live a life you're proud of. And if you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again." What significance do these lines carry, knowing what we know about the choice Benjamin made to leave Daisy (and Caroline)? At what possible conclusion are we to arrive but that Benjamin is a completely, thoroughly, and incomprehensibly selfish man?
The screenplay is replete with repetitive portentousness, characters announcing over and over that they are "going to sea," that they "went to sea," that they were "at sea," or that they are going "to war," that they were "at war," that "the war had found us." You get the idea.
And then there is the small fact that once Benjamin has returned from "war," nothing happens. The rest of the story is comprised of his on again / off again relationship with Daisy, during which nothing of interest takes place. Benjamin sails his father's old boat. How nice. Benjamin enjoys the company of a woman or three. Benjamin watches the shuttle launch from the waters off Cape Canaveral. Some pretty postcard visuals, but no plot to speak of.
Speaking as one who adores tangents in stories, even I must admit that none of the tangents in this movie amount to anything. None of the asides, the hummingbirds at sea, the men struck by lightning, the servants of John Wilkes Booth, Mr. Cake, who built the backwards clock, the parallel approach of Hurricane Katrina, none of these have a payoff. There the gun sits in the first act, and there it remains in the third, never having been fired.
An extended sequence in which Benjamin describes the individual events that took place in their specific order, leading up to a terrible accident nearly two-thirds of the way into the movie, is written so precisely like something in a screenwriting student's project, that one wonders not only HOW Benjamin could know all of these intricate details and what sort of detective work he must have had to do in order to uncover each event leading up to the accident, but also when the man is going to appear who can tell when and how someone is going to die by touching them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, here is a story about a man who ages backwards, and what that means for the relationships in his life. And yet at no point does anyone acknowledge or seem amazed or terrified by his condition. At no point is he regarded as, you know, a curiosity.
These are all problems inherent to the script itself, problems that already existed before a single frame had been shot. Ask yourself if you would have proceeded with a $200 million production at that point, or if you would have reworked the screenplay a bit more.
David Fincher decided the script was good to go. And watching the finished film, one suspects his primary motivator was the opportunity to break new ground in terms of special effects.
Many will praise
the film’s revolutionary effects, which used motion capture and green screen compositing to create a computer generated Brad Pitt head at various ages and place it atop the bodies of stand-ins who dutifully and thanklessly acted as Benjamin in the majority of the first third of the film.
And indeed in many shots the effects work is nearly astonishing. And yet for, say, every two or three successful effects shots involving the old Benjamin, there is one that simply fails. Watch carefully, for instance, the scene in which Benjamin has drinks at a bar with his biological father. "What do you do for a living?" the father asks. Benjamin lifts his head to respond, and just before he replies, "I'm a tug boat man," his head snaps awkwardly into position as though some intermediate stage in his movement had been inexplicably sliced from the reel. This is not the only example. The film is littered with shots of Benjamin's seemingly disembodied cartoon head floating strangely upon the neck of his body, and one begins to feel in a very tangible way the tight schedule under which the effects work was done.
Visual effects aside now, Benjamin Button finds Fincher at his directorial nadir. Like Sweeney Todd and Eastern Promises before it, here is one of the most visually boring movies of its year, a film that, just like Todd and Promises, in no way suggests it was made by one of the true cinematic masters of our time, a person responsible for some of the most indelible imagery of the last two decades. Surely, one finds himself thinking as he watches the awkwardly staged, cringe-worthy scene in which Captain Mike expounds on the mathematical significance of a hummingbird's wing patterns, this film wasn't made by the same man who made Se7en and Fight Club. Even Alien 3, that flawed first step toward the bastardization of one of science-fiction's truly great concepts, had a sort of hungry ferocity to it. One could almost feel Fincher behind the camera, dead set on proving how great he was. With Benjamin Button, a clear attempt at snagging the Oscar he so craved for Zodiac, Fincher has placed upon the work the thumbprint of ego, and so over the proceedings always hangs the feeling that the movie considers itself a masterpiece, so much better than it actually is.
For the record, there isn't a single strong performance in the entire picture. Were one to strain credulity, an argument could be made for Tilda Swinton, but even she is a broad brushstroke of a character, the first woman to love Benjamin, a torrid romance in an icy, soundstagey Russia, and the wife of a man said to be a spy, which sounds intriguing until you realize that it, like everything that sounds cool about the movie, also amounts to nothing. Her character, Elizabeth Abbott, is reduced in the end to simply a catalyst by which Benjamin seems convinced that yes, in fact, anything is possible, and perhaps he can act like a responsible adult. This lasts all of one year in his life, and then he proceeds to make the decision that robs him of the last shred of empathy we had for him.
Brad Pitt, so solid in nearly everything he does, and so unbelievably awesome in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, here plays Benjamin with an emotional distance, as though never fully invested in the character. Sure, he channels Tom Hanks as best he can, and draws out his Gulf Coast drawl to comic proportions, but he never becomes indistinguishable from the character as he did in 12 Monkeys or Burn After Reading. Much praise has already been heaped upon Cate Blanchett, who is also usually such a reliable successor to Meryl Streep. And yet here she too phones it in, playing Daisy at first as a thoroughly unpleasant, self-absorbed arteest who talks of nothing but herself, and then, in the years that follow, as a wooden, requisite lover. Realistic in theory, perhaps, but even as Daisy matures, and returns to Benjamin, finally ready to love him, we always feel Cate Blanchett. Acting. Poorly. Not once does she disappear into the role as she did with Bob Dylan, or Katherine Hepburn, or even Galadriel. Her love for Benjamin, and in fact their relationship entire, never holds water, and never exudes the sort of believable, genuine affection seen in, say, films like Before Sunrise or Before Sunset. The best romances aren't afraid to let their characters talk, because they understand why the characters would be attracted to one another, why they would fall in love. How many more movies must we sit through that convey falling in love by way of simply a montage, or shots of the characters talking without any audible dialogue? WHY do Benjamin and Daisy supposedly love each other? Like Forrest Gump, he runs to her side after personal tragedies, but never seems as head-over-heels devoted to her as Forrest does to Jenny.
The supporting characters are all cartoons, each and every one. From Taraji P. Henson, who surprisingly garnered rave reviews for her performance as Queenie (in the year of Viola Davis's performance in Doubt, Henson's accolades border on cosmically unjust), to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (whoa) as Tizzy, who plays his part like some exhaustingly defensive slam poet, grimacing in what we're supposed to read as genuine concern, but instead irritating the brain like an unscratchable itch. The doctor in the early scenes, who tells Mr. Button his wife is dying as though it's Mr. Button's fault, the African bushman who "befriends" Benjamin early on, but never seems to truly care for him. Captain Mike, half of whose dialogue is incomprehensible. Caroline, played by Julia Ormond, who appears to have been directed in such a way as to never allow for the genuine emotions a woman in her situation would feel. All of these and more.
Then there is the curious case of the actress who plays young Daisy's grandmother changing from a seemingly strong, lively woman (Phyllis Somerville) to a cranky, much older, wholly different actress (whose name I have been unable to discover) after only two short scenes, while Benjamin and Daisy are clearly the same age. Playing devil's advocate, we'll give Fincher and Roth the benefit of the doubt. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that a few years are supposed to have passed. There is still no way the first woman became the second. There is no way the woman we see reading them Just So Stories became the woman we see yelling at them for playing with a candle under the table. No. Freaking. Way.
The movie crawls at a snail's pace, padding the time between "incidents" with tangential ruminations that fail in their ambitions and leave us with Tarkovsky-length shots that lack either the resonance or beauty of a Tarkovsky shot.
Near the end of the film the camera pulls back from Daisy's hospital bed to the crowded hallway, nurses and staff running in panic as Hurricane Katrina approaches. The shot fades to black, and then fades back up, without any segue or sensible, cohesive transition, into Benjamin's final voiceover monologue, which begins abruptly, as though in the middle, and simply lists what "some people" do. This is one of the sloppiest, most amateurish, means by which to crowbar in a sequence I've yet seen in a film. This monologue is, like everything else in the movie, without narrative significance, and comes completely out of nowhere. Curiouser and curiouser.
There is one moment, one moment, that briefly catches us off guard, and induces some semblance of genuine, though manipulated, emotion. An elderly Daisy holds a newborn baby Benjamin in her arms and the two lock eyes with an inferred understanding and communication that should have been present throughout their entire relationship, but instead was nowhere to be found. The moment is heartbreaking, despite the fact that the meaning we assign it is entirely inferred and dictated to us by the narration. But it still comes near the end of the film, and so much of the audience will leave the theater having wept, believing they've just experienced something profound, something epic, something amazing.
If it sounds as though I have some sort of personal vendetta against this film, I hope you'll give me a bit more credit than that. It's true I have had a long, frustrating, love/hate relationship with this movie, and perhaps I bring some of that to my viewing of the finished piece. But these facts remain. These impressions remain. These opinions.
And if there is any sort of resentment there, it is ultimately due to the sheer disappointment I have in this film. Roth and Fincher have taken a terrific conceit, a man is born old and ages backwards, and this is the story they've told with it? This is the movie they've made?
And while not the worst film I've seen, it remains so thoroughly mediocre, so poorly written and so poorly made, that its arrogance only leaves that much more bitter a taste in my mouth. As a rule, one hopes to judge a film on its merits alone, and not by any hype - any buzz - that might surround it. But the buzz about "the best screenplay I've ever read," the hype and reviews that use words like "epic" and "masterpiece" compel me to take the thing down a notch. It is not a masterpiece. There are, in fact, few films in recent memory that I have detested more.