Ossified baby, anyone?
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—is it one of the worst American films of 2008, or THE worst American film of 2008? Can’t be the worst, you’ll argue, not while we have Australia to kick around. True. But both are examples of a rotten tendency in American filmmaking toward what critic Manny Farber used to call “White Elephant Art”: big fat overblown pompous moralizing messagey inert bathetic crap that wins awards. Button also features leaden whimsy, a cast of thousands of dull characters spouting folksy sayings, and thick golden visuals that look as if all the scenes of the past were dipped in maple syrup.
In fact, I think it merits the First Annual Stilly Award for the unmovingest movie of the year.
People will try to tell you this film’s just crammed with action and incident and emotion, but then, people will tell you all sorts of shameless lies just to hear you say, “Really?!?” Slide shows are more kinetic than this film, scrapbooks are more riveting, Hummel figurines are livelier and more aesthetically daring. It’s so constipated, so stodgy, so snivelling, so cruelly slow, so unintentionally funny in spots, I see no reason why it shouldn’t win ten Oscars in addition to the Stilly.
In case you’re wondering how you go about making something worthy of a Stilly, Benjamin Button provides a good model.
Well, first, you start with appalling source material. In this case it’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deservedly forgotten short story, a stiff attempt at humor that lands like a dropped brick. Make sure you preserve Fitzgerald’s original title, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which sounds like the twee tale of Winnie the Pooh’s even more nauseating stuffed pal.
Then you take the story’s weak premise—a man born old and aging in reverse toward youth—and assign it to Eric Roth, the screenwriter responsible for Forrest Gump. He pumps it full of lard. Now you’ve got a naïf aging backwards through American history, touching people’s hearts and acquiring cornpone wisdom all over the place from 1918 on up, and by God we’re gonna plod through all of it, the Depression and World War II and Meet the Beatles and all the tiresome changes of costume styles and hairdos and the make-up and CGI work to make Brad Pitt’s Benjamin younger and younger and Cate Blanchett’s Daisy older and older. The moral of the story, see, is “Nothing lasts,” and it’s crueler each time one of the characters says it, because Benjamin and Daisy last and last and last and last and last…
You frame that mess with a story of old Daisy dying in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina is bearing down, and while she waits to kick the bucket, her daughter reads to her from Benjamin’s diary. Why? Because that is hands-down the worst framing device anybody ever came up with, so naturally you’ll return to it many, many times over the course of the crushingly long film. Is she still dying? Is her daughter still reading? Is the hurricane still coming? Check, check, and double-check.
It’s director David Fincher’s perverse accomplishment to make us love and long for Hurricane Katrina. At least it kills off Daisy and ends Benjamin Button’s curious case, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
I’d like to report that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button represents the end of an era, one of those turning-points when American movies just have to change because they can’t get any worse. We had one of those epochal shifts back in the mid-1960s when the Hollywood studios kept stubbornly erecting those monumental, overstuffed, weirdly inert celluloid cheesefests like Cleopatra and Hello Dolly! and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang and the public couldn’t take it anymore and suddenly wanted to watch Easy Rider and Stan Brakhage experimental films instead. The new stuff was often pretty painful too, but at least it hurt in different places.
But nothing’s going to change. The audience for this kind of crap never goes away for long. Sentimental saps come out of screenings of Benjamin Button saying it teaches us all a valuable lesson about mortality, and dreary highbrows come out praising the way the drab, uninvolving, sepia-toned cinematography represents the mediated nature of human memory, and between those two groups we will never, ever be free of ponderously stupid films like this one. It’ll win a bunch of awards and we’ll all limp along till they make Benjamin Button II: The Five Billion People You Meet in Heaven.
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