Monday, 7 September 2009

The Curious Case Of A Dreadful Film Lined Up For An Oscar

Last night we had the misfortune of catching up with one of the 2008 Oscar winners, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Admittedly, it did only win in more technical categories, but it was originally nominated across the board. I'd like to know why.

While I'd expected an overly sentimental tale of doomed love set against a backdrop of 20th century events (à la Forrest Gump; whose screenwriter ponies up the "goods" here), I hadn't expected that so little could be stretched so far, nor that the resulting film would be so incoherent (especially given the director's previous Brad Pitt-led successes with Se7en and, especially, Fight Club).

What was originally a slender short story has bizarrely ballooned to almost 3 hours here. Scenes which communicate practically nothing by way of either narrative or character are unfathomably stretched, while the film paradoxically appears to leave other threads on the cutting room floor. For instance, two ostensibly important characters from Button's early life, a charming pygmy and an aged piano teacher, are given a modicum of screentime only for their contributions to evaporate inexplicably. The portentous departure of the pygmy is crying out for some follow-up, while the piano-playing learnt by Button makes but a brief appearance near the end of the film.

The film's framing device also completely over-eggs things with an overly dramatic "present-day" portion set in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. This framing also messes up the chronology as when an old-but-capable Daisy nurses a dying Benjamin in 2003 suddenly flashes forward to a gnarled, at-deaths-door Daisy a mere two years later.

Though its political subtext is dubious in the extreme, Forrest Gump at least stuck to a sensible narrative structure, and did manage to sneak some well-placed humour in with the special effects. Here, it's as if the special effects scenes were done first with the narrative a quick cut-and-paste job to get the viewer between them. And even then, while some of the effects are successful, the digital artists appear unable to portray a vigorous, young Brad Pitt as easily as they can the decrepit, aged version. As a result, Pitt spends a suspiciously long chunk of the film looking like (or close to) his actual age.

And all of these flaws sit on top of the larger one of the film's meaning. Beyond the "doomed love" theme I've already alluded to, it's difficult to discern any deeper thought in the film (beyond a generic "carpe diem"). In part this may be because the device at the core of the film, Button's reversed ageing, instantly makes his trials and tribulations difficult to empathise with. But I'd have thought a screenwriter with 3 hours to play with would have been able to manage more than this.

Still, it netted the filmmakers 11 Oscar nominations (of which it won 3), so who am I to say they stole 3 hours of my life that I'm not getting back?

P.S. In perusing the IMDb to find out more about the film, I did discover that I share my birthday (and obviously nothing else) with Brad Pitt. He's exactly 8 years my senior.

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