Thursday, January 22, 2009

Much ado about button

Is it me, or did The Curious Case of Benjamin Button completely suck? (Of course, it's probably going to clean up at the Oscars next month. Sigh)

I, for one, really wanted to like it.

First off, the movie is directed by David Fincher, who directed one of the best movies from the last 10 years, Fight Club.

Fincher has had a somewhat speckled record. I thought The Game was terrific (and might have even been the best role of Michael Douglas' career). And I didn't think Se7en was horrible. But Panic Room was a pretty crappy effort. And while Zodiac had a few things to recommend it, it also suffered from long stretches of boredom. (I guess that's the problem when you're sticking with a real life story that has no resolution.) But when a guy directs a movie as good as Fight Club, you figure he can do anything.

Second, it has Brad Pitt, who is probably my favorite among the mega stars. He isn't deranged like Tom Cruise. He isn't self congratulating like Will Smith. He's a decent actor. And there's a kind of lusty dreaminess in his eyes that has a lot of back story one can contemplate.

And, finally, it is from a truly wonderful short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

What could be bad?

Well, if Fincher and his writer (Eric Roth) had made the decision to stick with Fitzgerald's basic outline, it might have been a lot better.

The tale was one of Fitzgerald's more wispy, fairy stories -- like "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz". It was a magical realist idea, about a man who ages in reverse. And the story is a quiet gem. It's extremely funny and poignant. Benjamin meets a woman whom he falls in (and out of) love with; he tries to go to college and is turned away (he looks too old); he goes to war as an officer, even though he's a teenager. And so on.

Roth decided to use pretty much nothing from the story except for the basic idea of a man aging in reverse.

He moves the action from the late-19th century to the middle of the 20th century. He decides to make Button a foundling who is taken care of by an infertile black woman. (Huh?) He changes Baltimore to New Orleans. (And there's a really unfortunate decision to factor Hurricane Katrina into this mess.) The unhappy marriage is turned into a tormented romance filled with true love. (Barf.)

But the thing that was mostly missing was the joy of the Fitzgerald story. It was a tall tale; lighter than air. Seeing things through the eyes of someone so fundamentally different than he appears is an idea so ripe with possibilities. All the torments of aging are turned on their head.

But everything is heavy in the movie. They went for an epic rather than a tall tale. Huge mistake.

My mother, when watching it, turned to me and said, "It's like Forrest Gump for 2008." (And she didn't even know that Roth was, in fact, the screenwriter for Forrest Gump.) That strikes me as a pretty fair assessment. Pitt glides through the big events of history much like Gump -- whereas Benjamin Button glided through the vicissitudes of daily life. The tormented romance with Cate Blanchett became the central focus of the film. Is that really all Fincher and Roth thought would keep our attention? Sex between two hot bodies? (And, let's face it, Blanchett isn't even all that hot.)

Don't get me wrong -- there was a lot of room for interpretation of the Fitzgerald story which wasn't very long and could be read in less than an hour. Having some scientists come and try to figure Benjamin's condition out might have been interesting. And even though the story, which started in antebellum Baltimore, fit nicely with its time and place it wasn't essentially a southern story. Moving it up slightly in time wasn't a fatal idea.

But the changes they came up with were so cliched. So silly. So unnecessary.

I'm hoping Slumdog Millionaire kicks Benjamin Button's ass.