Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Curious Popularity of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Brad Pitt's latest venture, has received 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay and of course, Best Picture. I sincerely hope that Slumdog Millionaire, which is a tremendous movie, gets its share of Oscars, but I suspect that in the traditional example of Academy injustice, Ben Button will greedily hoover up the lion's share.

Don't get me wrong. I like David Fincher a lot. I think Brad Pitt is a much better actor than anyone ever gives him credit for. Eric Roth, on the other hand, although he deserves all the credit in the world for being a successful working screenwriter, I could do without.

The movie itself is a dressed-up pastiche of Roth's previous highly overrated Oscar winning work (which also grabbed 13 Academy noms), Forrest Gump. Both movies feature a catalyst protagonist, an unusual figure for whom how he touches others is as or more important than how they touch him. Both feature a doomed love story, and both use the backdrop of history as a character unto itself. Both have characters who seamlessly integrate into the African American community and both have characters that inexplicably feel the need to go out to sea.

The problem with both movies is that all of this fancy dressing is at the expense of character. In Forrest Gump, any characters with more redeeming values than unredeeming ones are simply reactive, just going along with where life takes them and accepting the consequences. In fact, the most noble, proactive character of all is Forrest's mother, who sleeps with the principal rather than let Forrest be ostracized by being taken out of the mainstream education system, but her appearance is farily brief (and in truth, if the highest sign of nobility in a movie is one's willingness to prostitute oneself, that nobility may not merit an abundant amount of praise).

In Benjamin Button, the characters are not irredeemable, but there are no opportunities for them to be redeemed. As passive as Gump's cast, they are simply caught up in the flow of Benjamin's journey through the timestream, hurtling via the force of the tides to their inevitable destruction. Not as frustrating as Gump, but ten times as depressing.

Benjamin Button is based on an extremely clever short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you haven't read it, you can read it here, and you should. (Winston Groom's ludicrous "Forrest Gump," on the other hand, should only be read by young children).

Fitzgerald's story works from Mark Twain's premise that God sort of got it all wrong when he made people so that they were young before they could gain the wisdom to fully take advantage of their physical prowess, and then had to decline in old age. That it would be much better to start in decline and grow younger as one gained experiences, then spend one's "golden years" as a happy child. Fitzgerald, in just a few well chosen pages, explores this premise beautifully, with equal parts humor and angst. Roth on the other hand, seems to ignore the premise entirely to focus on a "star cross'd" love story that we've seen many times before.

I'm pretty much disappointed by the Oscars every year and don't expect this year to be any exception. However, if Slumdog can nail a golden statue or two, that along with Heath Ledger's supporting actor win (and he's a lock, make no mistake) will have to be enough.

No comments: