Friday, January 2, 2009

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

The first time I tried to watch this movie, I couldn’t. The first ten or fifteen minutes left me feeling this is the most pretentious, slow moving, overdone piece of ham I’ve seen in a long time.

The second time I stayed with it all the way through, and was actually pretty pleased.

I’ve almost never been able to not finish watching a movie or reading a book once started. Only one or two times in my life. I’m compelled not only by the effort put into these works by their authors and collaborators and everyone involved in making a book or movie happen, but I also want people who pick up my books or see movies I had anything to do with to get the whole thing before making a judgment.

So now that I’ve watched the whole flick, here’s my response.

There are some pretentious things about BUTTON, but there are also some lovely things.

Bradd Pitt for one. A highly underrated actor, much the way Robert Redford always has been. Maybe because they’re good looking guys who seem to be blessed with the grace to make their success look easy and inevitable.

But in fact, they are both, for my taste, great actors. They aren’t the kind of shape shifters the Hoffmans are (Dustin and Phillip Seymor) or even the kind of consistently brilliant seemingly regular guy actor but actually interpreter of varied kinds of characters Jeff Birdges makes look equally easy. And they never play the kind of street savvy emotional ethnic roles of Pacino and DiNiro et. al.

But Redford and Pitt are consistently terrific, and from my experience, playing angry or emotional is a lot easier than playing ordinary or seemingly what you are.

And Pitt’s range has always been broader than Redford’s anyway. The first time I realized how good he was was his supporting role in THELMA AND LOUISE, where most of us first noticed him. But as an actor, the role that really caught my eye was the supporting one he played in TWELVE MONKEYS, one of my favorite flicks, in which he plays the wealthy but insane heir to Bruce Willis’ usual stoic hero.

And this year he played another great out-there supporting character in BURN AFTER READING. And was excellent, as well as very funny.

Now here he is carrying THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and as far as his part goes, he pulls it off, beautifully.

Which isn’t the case for his leading ladies—Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. As much as I love their acting, Swinton isn’t juicy enough to match the sensual ease of Pitt’s screen presence, and though Blanchett is capable of the same kind of sensual screen presence, in this movie she comes across more cool and even withdrawn than she should, except when playing her character as a young woman where’s she’s more goofy and pretentious than the character needs to be to prove she’s young. As they both “age” in their ways during the course of the film, Pitt’s character seems for the most part more believably whatever age he’s supposed to be, even incorporating the contradictions of the reverse aging of the plot, while Blanchett’s aging seems way too obviously theatrical rather than felt and lived.

There are a lot of nice acting bits by various supporting actors, though David Fincher (the director) for my taste, doesn’t make them serve the story-line and style of the film very well, so that many individual scenes work but could be from entirely different movies with entirely different styles and storylines.

That may also be partly the fault of the writers (Eric Roth and Robin Swicord are the credited writers of the story, and Roth the screenplay). Or the fact that it’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and short story’s don’t usually lend themselves to the kind of epic ambition this movie is going for.

But there was enough scenes and shots and moments in BUTTON to end up not only pleasing me but moving me, Maybe I’ve just lived too much and experienced too much so that almost anything can resonate in ways that become emotional for me these days, or maybe some of the scenes and some of the acting and the dialogue really were done well enough to cause it, but for whatever reasons, I did get misty eyed several times, and had those little cathartic moments that can be one of the pleasures of movies and a necessary way for some of us to find relief from the daily deluge of bad news these days.

So, ultimate response, worth seeing for anyone interested in movie making as an art, for the attempt it makes but ultimately fails at. Anyone else can wait and check it out on cable sometime in ’09 I would guess.

10 comments:

harryn said...

haven't seen it yet michael, but i'll take your 'word' for it ...

saw "burn after reading" the other night and was once again surprised at pitt's ability ...

never seen him play a role where he didn't appear accomplished but i have to wonder ...
doesn't he pretty much get to choose his roles and scripts at this point, and what would be the logic behind his choices ...

Doug Lang said...

Michael, I've not seen Benjamin Button yet, but I'm looking forward to it. There is a lot of substance in this post -- I was especially interested in the "actor" / "movie star" issue. There's an excellent article on movie stars by Mark Harris, in the current Entertainment Weekly (January 9) that I think you'd dig. And it deals with Brad Pitt in particular, I'm very sympathetic to your position regarding Robert Redford and Pitt, two excellent actors.

There's not much value in the argument that Dustin Hoffman is a "better" actor than Redford, or that Philip Seymour Hoffmann is a "better" actor than Brad Pitt. I love the Hoffman guys, although they both have a tendency towards Acting. I could not watch Death of a Salesman or Capote without losing awareness that I was watching a Great Performance. I could not watch Maryl Streep in Sophie's Choice without thnking of SNL's Wild and Crazy Guys, etc. And I love Meryl, too.

Then there's the idea of Movie Star Vanity, applied to the likes of Redford and Pitt and even Paul Newman. Movie star vanity? What a shocking idea. Like it wasn't true of Brando, also. All that Streetcar beefcake, especially the famous biceps still, what was that? But Newman was a dog because of his baby blue eyes. No sale.

Redford in Downhill Racer, Newman in Absence of Malice (to pick one of the less obvious choices), Pitt in Se7en, these represent movie acting at its best, just totally convincing, involving story-telling components.

The choices actors make are often intriguing (although I know that choices are often made for them). The choice of roles is really crucial, of course. In that regard its Redford and Dustin Hoffman who've made the less vital choices of the actors mentioned above, in my view, although I don't recall Redford devolving into some of the more eccentric stuff that Dustin has visited upon us,

All this rambling to just agree with you, really. One final bit. I am completely with you regarding Jeff Bridges, and i think that Dennis Quaid is a similarly under recognized actor.

Thanks, as always, for your ever stimulating blog.

RJ Eskow said...

We saw it the other night, Michael, and I had a very different reaction. I thought it was a deeply cynical piece, a work with no heart or soul.

Pitt does an excellent job, and the visuals were stunning. But I thought it was a cynical attempt to recreate a 'Forrest Gump' cultural phenomenon. They gave us no reason to care about any of the characters, including Benjamin. And the depiction of the African-American characters struck me as racist caricature. In a few scenes I thought I'd accidentally switched channels and was watching 'Cabin in the Sky.'

They missed a number of opportunities to explore challenging questions about age and identity. They got confused sometimes about the relative ages of their characters, with someone who should be 60 lookiing 40 and vice versa. But enough ...

You've probably guessed by now that I wasn't crazy about it ...

Lally said...

Check it out for yourself Paul and let me know what you think. Doug, always terrific to see your own analyses of the cultural artifacts that engage us so much. RJ, I can see some of your objections, which were also mine at times, but then there would be scenes or moments that seemed to transcend that jive and really touch me. As for the racial stuff, I thought it was all over the place. especially in the beginning, after WWI when racial injustice in many ways was at its peak, having an African-American woman running a nursing home full of elderly white and basically telling them what to do and making moves so independent in that context they seemed positively post-modern etc. So it swung both ways. And I would never compare it to Gump which offended me with its rewriting of history not only in the racial ways but in the political perspective ways making leftists and anti-Viet Nam activists seem like petty crooks or evil forces while diminishing the sins of the government and/or the South during that era, etc. Maybe it's just not terrifically accurate when Hollywood addresses Southern history and its issues (vid. BIRTH OF A NATION and GONE WITH THE WIND, et. al.), which it does in an incidental way in this flick. My larger points I still stand by, but I hear ya.

Lally said...
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Curtis Faville said...

I haven't seen the Button movie yet. My wife simply refuses to go to new movies, because of ticket-inflation. Eventually I'll probably see it on Netflix.

Pitt is a difficult actor to place. He has such a baby face, and is often wooden (which is often a better choice than hokey mugging) which usually can't work. I thought he was masterful in A River Runs Through It, though it must be noted that as a fly-fisherman myself, and a fan of FF literature, I had a natural attraction to his "vernacular" character turn as the dangerously irresponsible younger brother. I've not liked him in much else. Troy was a surprise--the big pectorals and passionate one-dimensionality worked much better than Douglas' Spartacus, or Heston's Ben-Hur.

I'd have to say the jury WILL BE out for some time on Pitt. As he ages, we'll see if that young teen idol good looks mature into something substantial, or he simply fades like Tab Hunter or Troy Donohue.

RJ Eskow said...

I hear you too, Michael - but in the end I felt I was being played. Too many cheap tugs at the heart, no characters I truly cared about.

Another case in point: what was up with the Katrina climax? It seemed like it was supposed to mean SOMETHING, but who knows what?

Pitt was extremely good, though, despite the lack of chemistry between him and and either Swinton or Blanchett - fine actors though they all are.

I'm glad I saw it, for the acting and the terrific visuals. But when I read today the Joe Biden and his wife couldn't get in to see it this weekend, my first thought was that maybe they same something more effective instead.

Maybe I'm turning into a curmudgeon ...

Lally said...

RJ, Your points are well taken, as always. I'm a part-time member of the curmudgeon club myself.

coffee said...

Cate Blanchett with a southern accent FTW; but Benjamin Button kept dragging on, always pausing dramatically on Brad Pitt's face, a lot like Meet Joe Black, FTL

JIm said...

We are behind the times. Loyeen, my daughter Shannon and I watched it over 2 days. I tried to tie together the clock and the clockmaker"s suicide and Benjamin's reverse aging, but was unable to do so. I wanted to be captivated and just became more puzzeled. In search of some resolution I read the story on line, which is a wonderment to me, in itself. I read reviews including yours, and found no enlightenment. I think it was a missed opportunity, that could have been a deeply moving classic film.