Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

My Edition: Criterion Collection DVD.

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton.

History: Based loosely on the 1922 short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The era it takes place in was modernized for the film. The only things that are retained in the film are Benjamin's name and the aging process. The screenplay was written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, and was directed by David Fincher. The film's history began in the early 80s when producer Ray Stark obtained the rights to the story. Over the years some of the directors briefly attached to this project included Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Spike Jonze with the starring role of Benjamin Button potentially to be played by Martin Short, Tom Cruise, or John Travolta. It was originally set to be released in May of 2008 but was later moved to Christmas that same year. It opened in third place behind Marley & Me and Bedtime Stories but still managed to gross approx. 333 million worldwide, more than doubling it's original budget of 150 million.

My Personal History: I saw this when it first hit theatres. This is my first viewing since then, 3 and 1/2 years later.

Review: I'll put it in the forefront I know nothing about the original story this is based on. I do now know how this story is very different from the original story. I couldn't remember who wrote it or how accurate I heard it was when I first saw this, or even this viewing before I started researching for this review. I did wonder how recent it was because of many of the things I saw in this film (Like references to hurricane Katrina). I had this funny feeling in the back of my mind that the story had to have been modernized. It just didn't make sense that this story which has a classic feel to it is referencing events as recent as less than a decade ago. As you read by now I obviously was correct. I was more correct than I thought because of how little in common the original story has with this adaptation of it. But before I become my own pet peeve we need to move forward. This is not the book, this is the movie, with a whole new idea based around said story. It's a matter of what the film does, if it's effective, etc, and it's credibility is not based on how accurate it is to the source material. If a film is judged by that then that mean's Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a better film than the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which is something I am not willing to accept.

Before I get into the film I want to quickly touch on what I saw first, like many other people for most films, the promotional material. I specifically picked out the poster I did at the beginning of my review. I feel it's the only truly well done promotional material released (in America at least) for this film. It's a great tease for what's to come. For those who are somewhat familiar with the plot get a peek into what Benjamin's life is like at the beginning. He's born an old man. Those who don't know the plot are caught by a bizarre image. "Why is that baby wrinkly? Does he have a disease? What's the story?" It draws a lot of attention toward the film and I feel that poster would be effective in bringing in an audience. Now the most popular posters I felt were not only poorly done but also just really annoying to look at. I seriously can't stand looking at the mainstream posters that came out for this film. The two I'm talking about are the ones of Brad Pitt's face and of Cate Blanchett's face. First, Brad's face looks like someone stuck a tube of helium in the back of his head and now they're pumping until his eyes pop out. Then Cate's face looks like a plastic surgeon has taken all of her loose skin and is now right behind her stretching it as far back as it will go (ala Brazil). The only other one I did actually like was one showcasing one of Benjamin and Daisy's first meetings. They're sitting under a table with a candle lit and a great quote, "You're different from anybody I ever met..." is a fantastic poster that doesn't make it painfully obvious who is starring in the film and delivers on the story. The sad story behind this poster is the similar one's that follow (so this is more of a criticism as a whole) which are the exact same template only with the "insert photo here" spot in the middle changed and the quote below it changed. It makes the promotional material as a whole look really cheap and poorly made.

On to the actual film...

So this film starts off different than I thought it would... with Hurricane Katrina? Daisy in lying in bed in a hospital and right from the start it's easily implied she's going to die any day or any moment now. She is with there with her daughter at her bedside. Due to her failing sight and strength she asks her daughter to read from a diary written by Benjamin. So I have some beef right off the bat with this whole element of the story. Yeah it's cool that they're reading from a diary written by Benjamin himself. It's a pretty cool way of telling the story in the same way of sitting around with your grandfather who lived through both world wars, served for the president, and made out with Marilyn Monroe and he decides to tell you all about it in a single sitting it's so fascinating. The major problem I have with this is we see exactly where Daisy winds up, without Benjamin by her side which either means she lives longer than he does or he leaves her for whatever reason at some point. Not to mention her daughter clearly has no idea who Benjamin is which seems kinda odd for Benjamin having such an impact on Daisy's life that she wants his diary read to her on her DEATH BED! Whatever, make the best of it, just try and enjoy it.

One of the first things I noticed about this film was the CG work. In terms of casting at different ages it makes sense to cast literally different people for different ages such as they did with Daisy. With Benjamin there was going to be a heavy load of CG or hardcore makeup for the film anyway no matter who was cast in his early life to mid teens. I must say that going with Brad Pitt playing Benjamin at every age (Minus when he's super old/young) was a fantastic choice simply because of what was able to be done with the CG work. I can say without a doubt that Benjamin in his early life when he is an old young man is some of the best use of CG that's ever been done in the history of cinema. Far too often is CG used in a way where it looks painfully obvious (Which could have been a cause of laziness, budget, time, etc) but in this it was done truly TRULY well. Brad Pitt's face flows seamlessly with the rest of his fake body for the film. It gives a real to life feeling that he is an old man. This is amplified by his performance as well. He felt his... age? I legitimately forgot it was Brad Pitt playing the role until he got much... older? The way he walked, the way he talked, the way he carried himself overall. It was really strong. And another thing that I felt was strong initially was the relationship and bond between Benjamin and Daisy. They first meet when they're still less than 10 years old. One of my favorite scenes is very brief but very effective. It's the evening they first meet. Daisy, at this age played by the wonderful Elle Fanning, wakes up Benjamin in the middle of the night. She drapes a sheet over a table and they light a candle so they can see underneath. Benjamin is already in love with this girl after meeting her just that day so this is amazing for him. Daisy is fascinated by him because of his unique condition unable to comprehend at that time what makes him the way he is. The chemistry is beautiful and well establishes the kind of life they will experience with such high emotions.

As he grew older/younger and the CG and makeup became less apparent things actually started getting somewhat more confusing. It felt like for both Benjamin and Daisy by the time they reached a certain age they didn't appear to change much at all until they got to a much more noticeable age. This is where the slow pace and subtlety of the changes in their age falls apart a little. A lot of the fun of this film is watching Benjamin slowly become not old. Once he hits the appearance age of around 50 or so the changes aren't that significant as it would in real life so I guess I shouldn't be complaining, but the issue I had is that it was a lot harder to tell his age because in one scene it felt like he was 50, the next 30, the next 40, etc. The same goes for Daisy in the opposite direction. I guess this is more my beef with aging stories in general since in 30 minutes you get to see characters age from childhood to teens to adulthood which is a greater change in appearance and everything. After that they may as well be the age of the actors playing them until there's more makeup brought out to make them look even older. The actors at least do act their age in this. I must applause the leads for their work. One actress that was going to play Daisy before Cate Blanchett was cast was going to be Rachel Weisz which wouldn't have been as well acted but would have been a lot nicer to look at (But that's a discussion for another day). But Cate Blanchett knocked it out of the park with her performance mostly when she was at her much older age. Her presence as an elderly person in her 60s+ was spot on, which was assisted greatly by the superb makeup. Brad Pitt made me believe he was a child stuck in an old man's body. He walked and talked like an old man but his attitude was very childlike. A perfect example of this is when he is in his wheelchair earlier in the film and he rolls right to the edge of the stairs on the porch damn near falling down the steps so he could watch and admire the other kids playing across the street. Once he reached a certain age it felt like he just stopped aging, he seemed to stop changing period. He actually did little change over a lot of the film. I felt well into his 30s-40s he was still that same man he was as a child, the naive and clueless person he's always been, which wasn't helping his case because Daisy became a rebellious, horny bitch by the time she was an adult. Such a shame for someone who was such an angel in her child years. Then all of a sudden a change of pace happens somewhere around halfway and they're completely different people. Now you'd think they were a couple of fun loving hippies who are living to party up and down in their apartment they have almost entirely unfurnished. That is more so a complaint on the story itself I guess...
Yes I mostly touched on their elderly (elderly?) performances, that's where they came alive in this story. Watching them act out their story when they met that middle spot in their ages just wasn't as exciting considering the story that's being told. And I'm again super thankful for the makeup and CG work so they don't look like that old guy from the six flags commercials back in the day.

Narrations can really be a hit or a miss. It doesn't work because it insults the intelligence of the audience as a way to say "You can't figure out what's going on so we'll just tell you." But it also works really well because there is so much going on or so little time to tell such a long and complex story that it needs to be there or you'll be left wondering "What the hell just happened?" This is more of the later. Since the film does start out with the presentation that it's being revisited through a diary it makes total sense to have the narration by none other than Benjamin himself. This is one of the few cases where narration works out well, much like some of Shion Sono's films. I do believe that any film can be done very well without a narration and as it may have been implied I prefer it that way, which also brings me to my next point, how the film could have been enhanced without the modern day backdrop for the film. Aside from the fact that they show us where Daisy ends up at the beginning of the story but they also introduce us to and try and get us to care about her daughter. Her daughter Caroline (bah bah bah, so good, so good, so good) easily was created for the means of telling the story even though it could have been easily been told through a chronological method and even still have the narration and would have been a better experience. My biggest question with a lot of what happens in this modern day backdrop is who cares? Having Hurricane Katrina present makes it feel like there's an impending threat on the story itself. This hurricane has nothing to do with Benjamin's life and it doesn't have to do with Daisy's life either aside from the fact that she's on her death bed while it's happening. What is the threat here? Is there supposed to be a threat that the story won't finish by the time the hurricane hits and then whoops, that's it? I can imagine how bad that would look. Half way through the story right when Benjamin really starts developing a life for his own, he hasn't quite won over Daisy yet, etc, etc and then well, end of credits. Sorry, the hurricane hit, the books gone, we don't know the rest of the story that's all we had. Another thing that bugs me with the modern day backdrop is how they keep attempting to make us care more and more for Caroline when it's really hard to care. The audience didn't pay it's way in to watch the Curious Fascination Caroline Has With Her Mother's Ex-boyfriend. The biggest attempt was when Caroline found out Benjamin was her father. All I thought during this like during a lot of other parts in this modern part is who cares?! It gave no emotional pain and betrayal because she wasn't very established character. Every time I saw her I just wanted them to go back to Benjamin to see what he's up to.

As I've been thinking about this film more as I've been writing this I've come to realize I don't have a whole lot to say about it. I don't mean to say it's a bad film. I actually think this film is fantastic and one of the best that came out that year. The thing is that it's good in a way that a lot of classic American films tend to be. One of the ones that came to mind while watching this was Forrest Gump. It's a story that takes place during key, iconic moments in recent history starring a man who is unlike anyone else around him and throughout his life he does and participates in a lot of crazy and/or exciting shit all leading to a heartfelt conclusion that will bring any audience member to nearly tears. Turns out I was right in thinking this because Eric Roth who wrote the screenplay for Benjamin Button also wrote the screenplay for Forrest Gump. It's already known that these stories are both based on books but the comparison is sickening when it comes down to looking close at the details. Don't fix what isn't broken as they say. I also find it somewhat odd how... by the books this film is for a director like David Fincher, the man who brought us Fight Club, Se7en, and The Social Network (Which is a good film but I never understood why it got best picture attention from so many people when it came out). Seriously, though, this is a superb film. Take my criticism to heart because isn't that what criticism is all about? Finding all the rough spots and pointing them out despite the fact?

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