Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: So Mediocre It Went Straight to Criterion

Ride, Benjamin! Ride!

Despicable. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is getting a straight-to-Criterion-Collection release. I can think of a lot of films that deserve this treatment less than Curious Case, but because it wasn't a terrible movie, and just a... there movie? An okay movie? An unoriginal movie? The glaring mediocrity of it being overlooked bothers me more than it would an outright bad film getting this level of critical treatment.

I know it made great technical advances. The same team that created the adorable, humanity-saving baby in Children of Men worked on the de-agening of Brad Pitt. It was an awe-inspiring job to anyone who puts stock in realistic special effects, and honing an art to near perfection. And Claudio Miranda's cinematography deserves notice, and praise, and should have taken home Best, next to what I thought was a meh job at it in Slumdog, but aside from technical and the way it was filmed, and Alexandre Desplat's music, and I guess art direction and production design can get a little love, Curious Case has earned near none of the attention it won.

I'm thinking I may be kicking a dead horse with this review, but is it really kicking a dead horse if the horse keeps standing up, and trotting away from you? When it first came out and got consistent positive criticism, I found it mildly annoying. When it got nominated as one of the "best" pictures of the year, I thought people were making a huge mistake. And then I let it rest. Until finding out the Criterion Collection, the film collection I put plenty of stock in, what I consider to be the finest judge of watch-worthy films, decided to jam Curious Case into its happy little family. I really don't understand it.

David Fincher is amongst my favorite directors. Fight Club, Se7en, Panic Room, those were well directed movies. Brad Pitt emotes in Fight Club and Se7en. I don't have to ruin the ending to both, but come on, do you have to kill a guys wife, and make him a figment of Edward Norton's imagination to make him act believably? He doesn't do anything in the entire movie. He doesn't grow. He doesn't reflect a man who is aging backwards, he reflects a man who has had absolutely nothing wrong happen in his life. Anything bad that happens to him doesn't really affect him anyway, because he only has eyes for Cate Blanchett.

Eric Roth is the other big problem. I think I've heard this 30 times, but Curious Case does bear a number of similarities to his previous film Forrest Gump. Mostly in the romance department. Button, like Gump, spends his whole life, from elementary years onward, harping on this one girl. He can't get her off of his mind. At least in Button's case he gets to have a brief roll-in-the-hay with Tilda Swinton, but both of them have stints with prostitutes, and both are hopelessly drawn to women that don't really want much to do with them romantically for the majority of their lives.

These relationships are ultimately what get me. These aren't real relationships. Button has no reason to fall so hopelessly in love with a girl he met as a young old man. He hung out with her on the weekends, when she was visiting her grandmother. There's no reason for such a strong bond to have been built. And the way she treats him when she's legal? Miserably. But that's alright. When he wants her, she doesn't want him. When she wants him, he doesn't need her. Finally though, they get it right. They 'meet in the middle'. Which is nice. If they'd met in the middle, and had really met in the middle, that would be cute. But as is, there isn't reason for them to care about each other. Not to the extent they do, and not to any extent beyond common human decency.

Button doesn't react to death in any impactful way. And it doesn't impact him. People pass out of his life because they're old. Old people die. It's like any little boy having old people around him dying, because his mind is the same age as it should be. If he was born with an old person's mind, as he is in the F. Scott Fitzgerald story, it would actually matter to him that his friends are all dying. But in the film, it doesn't. His father comes to claim him when it's years too late. And he's fine with that. His friends and mentors all pass away. He's fine with that. He only has eyes for Cate. Unrealistic eyes for unrealistic Cate.

Watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind really drove home how fake these relationships were. Spotless Mind gets relationships down. All the characters, they're real people, I can picture them coexisting with me. Not so in Curious Case. Also, the Katrina storyline? Useless. Absolutely useless. Cate Blanchett's retrospective is useless to a story that is perfectly simple to tell without flashing back to 2005 from the mid 1900s. It's under my skin, Curious Case. It could have done so much with the source material, and it could have done so much with the money, and the talent it had behind it, but a few mistakes and it falls flat on its face.

The only excuse for it being admitted into the Criterion Collection is the technical. If you had to have a good story to get into Criterion, it wouldn't be there. And as far as I knew, Criterion meant a film hits all the criteria necessary for it to be a great film. Turns out I was mistaken.

Fuck you, Eric Roth.

- Eric T. Voigt, Ending on a Belligerent Note

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