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Entertainment / Fatwah / movies / January 7, 2009

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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  • 1. berlinbear  |  January 8th, 2009 at 6:09 am

    Das Stimmt. What an awful film. To think David “Fight Club” Fincher was responsible. The old baby was actually the best part, and if the special effects department had any balls at all, at the end of the film Mr. Button would have died as an adult-sized baby, whatever that looks like.

  • 2. Baltimoron  |  January 10th, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Has Eileen Jones ever written a positive movie review?

    Not that I’m suggesting she start with “Benjamin Button.” If any movie deserves to be covered in the sort of bile in which Jones specializes, it’s certainly this one.

    I’m just wondering if Eileen has it in her to actually *like* a movie. If not, is it masochism that motivates her to continue reviewing films? And if that’s the case, can I holla at a mommy?

  • 3. Carpenter  |  January 10th, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    I suppose that during all that time, Benjamin Button never once holds a weapon? Unless he fought in WWII of course, The One Exception To All Liberal Rules. But going out hunting? Keeping a gun in the home for self-protection? Why, that’s just not something you did in the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s if you were one of the good guys!

    But what does a Good Guy in that dark pre-hippies era do? He “deals with the issues of racism” of course, like I read in a starry-lit review. Of course. Write about the 1950s and your hero will never own a gun, but he will of course cry for puppy-eyed Blacks who are attacked by howling racists. A must, it is!

  • 4. Hmmm  |  January 11th, 2009 at 12:55 am

    I think Carpenter is upset there weren’t more 60s race mob lynching scenes (with guns).

  • 5. John  |  January 13th, 2009 at 9:50 am

    To be fair, a race riot complete with lynching with Button as one of the black-hating good ol’ boys would have turned the fucking movie on it’s head and made it an indictment of the autofellating schmaltzy Americana it actually turned out to be.

  • 6. krikken  |  January 18th, 2009 at 4:51 am

    .taht ekil detiolpxe gnieb ta yrgna tlef neht, ybab (dlo ylemertxe) a ekil deirc I

    .esimerp diputs a tahw ,nam tub ,godmulS sa gninnuts sa tib yreve saw ti yas dluow I

    .gninnuts saw siht yllausiV

  • 7. coffee  |  January 18th, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    it was a little weird to see an old version of Brad Pitt’s face pasted onto a kid’s body, but i guess that’s why they call it a “curious case”

  • 8. Raphael Semmes  |  January 26th, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    The only good part of the entire movie was the tugboat shooting at a submarine.

  • 9. Jack Sanderson  |  February 3rd, 2009 at 4:29 am

    The original short story was not an attempt at humor at all. It was a cynical piece that said that a 50 year old man should not be considered too old for a 20 year old woman because she will probably age faster than he does and they will be equals in a few years.

    The film had to be more political correct. Witness how the 60 year old Ben told the 20 year old Daisy that she should “date men who look her own age” but the 15 year old Ben dutifully had sex with the 65 year old Daisy many years later. The film shows how feminism is trying to establish a reverse age difference relationship regime over human nature.

    Sure, I liked the film more than the short story because love won the day in the film and the story was just soulless and heartless in the end.

  • 10. GoldenNuggetsDeals  |  February 18th, 2009 at 6:12 am

    a review a bit harsh Eileen.

  • 11. Ben  |  March 17th, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Not harsh enough. This movie, like the titular dwarf baby, should have been aborted. The romance made me hate love. The magical negroes made me hate blacks. The sailors made me hate the working class. The ooh-ing and aah-ing of females in the theater when Brad Pitt emerged fully handsome made me hate women. The entire thing made me hate America and myself for participating in the spectacle. All in all the film’s almost perversely brilliant in a feel-bad, reverse psychology kind of way. Maybe that was the intention?

  • 12. TJ  |  August 5th, 2009 at 7:20 am

    A terrible movie. Pretentious is the word for it. So much attention paid to cgi, costumes, makeup, and sound. So little attention paid to story (it is SLOW), dialogue (folksy, simplistic one-liners), and especially characterization. The characters here are either cardboard or caricatures. And the framing device emerged as an annoying sub-plot that halted the movie’s meager narrative momentum (ironic because it gave birth to the “main” plot). The sound quality was terrible; halfway through I put the subtitles on (literally). But the movie’s greatest shortcoming is its lack of maturity. Not only does it have a movie-ish look to it (we never forget that we’re watching an expensive Hollywood spectacle that will end with rolling credits and ponderous music), but the entire enterprise lacks a feeling of maturity. It’s as if the movie was made by people who had read about life and human nature, but never experience them directly. Save yourself from this movie; take those several hours and watch instead Twelve Angry Men and To Have and Have Not. And then dream about the past.

  • 13. Evoline  |  September 27th, 2011 at 11:42 am

    I make myself sick my mom eats tooth paste from a toilet bowl

  • 14. Jihan  |  December 30th, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    this film has a spiritual thinking side like that one Abraham Hicks adopted . Please think deep enough to understand .

  • 15. Hesham  |  March 3rd, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    i disagree with you this movie is great actually the kind in which puts you in a mood that you hard to get out of it maybe the rhythm of the movie is a bit slow but this film is a master piece

  • 16. tim pissman  |  October 9th, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    Believe it or not Benjamin Button can be viewed as a comedy in the same way one can read Candide.

  • 17. Susu  |  December 29th, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Brad Pitt is not just another handsome guy who’s made it big in film. This guy is one hell of an actor who’ll walk away with this year’s Best Actor Oscar as will the movie garner 10 awards. It is simply a masterpiece; no words can aptly decribe the poignancy and beauty of this celluloid Renoir. And I am a PR flak paid to place comments like this in social media. In truth, I think nothing at all about Pitt but if my boss found out I’d lose this $8.85/hour job at this shitty PR firm. Please kill me.

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