The verdict is more or less in on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (from what I can glean: good movie with great performances/cinematography/etc but a bit slow, pointless and déjÃ –vu-y vis-a-vis Eric Roth’s screenplay), which has been picked clean by the canon of critics lucky enough to be considered the “jury” on such matters (and even the ones who aren’t). Indeed, I saw the film (like probably a number of other people) on New Year’s Day, hoping to score some vague, lofty symbolism on the issue of time, the inevitability of aging, etc. Seeing as how one can only stomach the grandiose human epic genre once or twice a year I figured the start of 2009 was a decent enough excuse to indulge. Unfortunately — and this was a tough assessment, as I thought the film was far from worthless and I had so prepared myself for another subtle, yet complexly flawed masterpiece from David Fincher that I would have happily sat through Panic Room-grade hi jinks — Button failed to cast much of a spell on me, save for a few scenes with Tilda Swinton that vaporized as sweetly (and swiftly) as bon–bons on the tongue.
In any case, the first of the two primary issues I had with the film — and the blame for both falls squarely with writer Eric Roth — has been cited in practically every review I’ve thus far read, so it’s pointless to continue the critical echolalia. However, to be more specific about my own grief: the thematic, structural, and worst of all characterizational connections with Forrest Gump were highly problematic. Like Gump, Benjamin Button is a cipher of a man, spouting optimism despite being socially isolated due to a physical/physiological condition. And somehow we’re supposed to understand his situation and mindset as analogous to (or emblematic of) The Impossible-to-Define-and-Yet-Overwhelming-Definitive American Quality. (Or even American Dream, if you wish — I entertain the thought that, mirroring Button, American society was borne out of sophisticated but stodgy Founding Fathers only to gradually devolve into political infantilism. But, the Founding Fathers were probably just as immature as we are now, perhaps just more skilled at obscuring their sophomoric side — clear enough to anyone who had to read Franklin’s autobiography in high school — and social commentary seems to be the furthest thing from the film’s mind, despite having been adapted from a short Fitzgerald satire.)
American events bristle and pop all around Benjamin Button as he lives a life in reverse — what significance is offered for the taking in that juxtaposition, however, is not always clear. And don’t get me started on Button’s African American foster mother of sorts, whose tautological platitudes are even more irritating than those of Gump’s mommy (“You never know what’s comin‘ for ya” basically = “Life is like a box of chocolates”…did they — ie, he — think we wouldn’t notice?). It almost brought me to tears when I read that Charlie Kaufman wrote a discarded draft of Button — now THAT would have been a complexly flawed masterpiece!
But it’s the framing device, set in a hospital room again the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, that I find most offensive. Clearly Katrina is meant as a metaphor on multiple levels — my fellow Slant Mag writer Nick Schager rightly calls it “a tacky symbol of the unpredictable, unchangeable future” — and it produces an apt “teetering-at-the-end-of-world-by-flood” tension that evokes far more expert examples of Magical Realism (Cien AÃ±os de Soledad, for one). And yet — Katrina was a genuine catastrophe, not a fictive one. The repercussions on many southern cities were severe, and exacerbated further by the federal government’s en ritard to action. Some hospitals additionally made the controversial decision to euthanize bed-ridden patients in Katrina’s wake, rather than risk watching them drown. In short — it’s too soon to manipulate such a cataclysmic event for the purpose of better-structuring a hollow love-story — especially one being partially narrated by the internal monologue of a bed-ridden, hospital-bound New Orleans native.
Granted, you could say the same thing about many other movies — Titanic, for one, although that event had nowhere near the same impact, and that film, in all its cheapness, does pay its respects to the dead in its own way. Pauline Kael slapped Swimming to Cambodia on the wrist for a similar faux pas. Or how about the grand-daddy of bad taste: The Day the Clown Cried, the unseen Jerry Lewis vehicle that supposedly turns the holocaust into a B-class melodrama weepy? Not having seen it, it’s hard to say how despicable such a scenario would be, although I for one would applaud the integration of more camp value in films, books, et al regarding the unthinkable atrocities of our time (ie, the Holocaust, 9-11, etc) if only because camp is a seldom-used yet highly effective method of grieving, and we’ve just about exhausted ourselves on haughty, sanctimonious (not to mention treacly) paeans to the various victims/heroes of those tragedies. It’s remarkably telling, however, that the first non-Spike Lee film I see that features Hurricane Katrina has marginalized it to the duty of a matte painting. 9-11 is the tragic hero myth of our age. Katrina was…just a bunch of rain that got mishandled by the feds. But they apologized,
At the end of Benjamin Button, Katrina’s waters flood a basement full of artifacts, including the backwards-moving clock that acts as a prop in another framing device for Button’s narrative (the script is a hall of mirrors, though the illusions are strictly low-rent fun-house). It’s a powerful scene on the surface; you can just feel the significance swell the screen as the camera dollies towards the clock’s face. The problem is, as with the protagonist towards his god-forsaken plight, we’re not quite sure what to feel, or where to direct our attention. I personally felt pulled towards the water itself — towards what it would have been doing to others in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, etc — but we’re pushed by the filmmakers towards the enigma at the center of the story, which just seems sideshow odd this late in the game. Button could have been a symbol for so much more than star-crossed love — for basically anything socio-political or philosophical or epistemological you name — but the clarity isn’t there for any interpretations the audience conjures to stick (he’s like a stainless steel cipher — just try to pin anything on him and you’ll see). The movie wants to be a statement about life — American life specifically, I think — but it winds up succumbing to the short-sighted, prettifying mythology we’ve inherited from Hollywood.