Monday, October 29, 2012

Cinema 2008: Waiting for Brad Pitt

What is curious about the 2008 film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" are many of the odd choices made by screenwriter Eric Roth and director David Fincher in adapting to celluloid this idea from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Apart from Brad Pitt, there really is not much to recommend the movie. For many, Pitt of course is more than enough, but those fans will have to remain patient through the first half of the movie until Pitt's role, Benjamin Button, born an old man and aging backward, finally matures on screen into the youthful Adonis they expect. We know exactly when that happens because Button's lover (played by Cate Blanchett) blurts in amazement, "Look at you. You're perfect."

But then, this is a movie where the filmmakers believe they must tell the audience everything in so many words, as if it were not clear enough looking at a smiling Pitt on the big screen. Amazingly, the actor, who was 46 when he made this film, still convinces in the role of a man 20 years younger, or did that scene use outtakes from Pitt's early career?

Most of the words telling us what we are seeing and what it means are spoken by Pitt in soothing voice-over -- a drawled commentary that conveys a rare equanimity, perhaps rooted in wisdom garnered from Button's unique take on the human comedy. That narration, which rarely waxes poetic, aims to keep alive our interest in a series of wooden vignettes about a freakish life. In addition we are spoon-fed vacuous truisms and homespun mottos the likes of "you never know what's coming at you." (“Life is like a box of chocolates” was already taken.)

It should be noted that only the script's title was actually penned by Fitzgerald. While writer Roth is probably familiar with the original short story -- in his script he drops the names John Wilkes Booth and Teddy Roosevelt, both of which appear on Fitzgerald’s pages -- any logical link to those historical figures has been broken by the fact the movie relocates the main action by 1,000 miles and sets it in an era decades later than the original story.

As for Scotty Fitz, the great American writer said he based his story on a remark by Mark Twain that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst at the end. Alas, neither the beautiful expression nor the wit of those prominent literary forebears is in evidence throughout this overlong cinematic adaptation.

For comic relief, there are cheap jokes at the expense of a revivalist preacher, among others, and a running gag about a guy repeatedly hit by lightning. Once again, don't look for that anywhere in Fitzgerald's tale. Maybe look instead to "Uncle Buck."

There is one literary reference in the movie although it goes uncredited. “Benjamin Button” is clumsily bookended by scenes involving a backwards-running clock. The clockmaker built it as a form of protest against all the young men being killed in war. A scene showing soldiers mowed down by enemy fire as they charge with bayonets is played backward so that the fallen leap from the battleground and run backward away from death.

In his seminal work, "Slaughterhouse Five," American novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote about a better way to watch war movies, namely, backward, so that we see instead the soldiers take the bullets out of their weapons, see men and ordnance shipped out of theater and back to the factories where workers dismantle the weapons and finally we see miners take the metal ore used in weapons making and hide it deep underground. Thanks Kurt.

"Button" tries to pass itself off as wide-ranging, but backlot forays to Paris and Murmansk are bereft of any feel for place. On stage at the Paris opera we don't even glimpse Garnier's world famous chandelier, while all we see of Russia's Hero City is a seedy hotel.

The musical score is hauntingly melodramatic, but sounds more like a thin echo when compared to original music from Claude Lelouch's 1995 movie "Les Misérables," for example.

But the worst betrayal of Fitzgerald's bagatelle is the final conceit of the film. Button has now grown into an infant and is reaching the end of his backward life. In the arms of an old woman who used to be his lover, the baby looks up. "He looked at me as if he knew," she tells herself.

But Fitzgerald knew better in 1922 when he penned the story, which ends: "He did not remember. ... And then he remembered nothing. ...

"Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind."

I guess that ain't happy end enough for Hollywood.

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