No doubt you will have all heard of this movie and know it’s premise, partly due to the glut of awards nominations it’s received and but mainly because actors appear either older or younger in movies always seems to generate column inches. Even in these days where the wonders of CGI can bring the products of the most deranged imagination to the screen, well known faces getting their ages changed still seems to fascinate us far more than the latest giant robot/pirate/dinosaur. Special effects rarely raise an eyebrow now, but announce a movie in which Brad Pitt will appear as an old man and everyone sits ups.
Aside from novelty value and blatant schadenfeude ("Brad Pitt looking like shite? - I'm in!"), our interest in this kind of makeup wizardry reflects our cultures deeply rooted attitudes to aging. Living in a society where old age is seen as a bad thing and where the media enforces a premium on youth, it is very telling that aging effects still elicit big wows. And so, when David Fincher produces a film about a character that ages backwards you would expect that director of his calibre would have acres of material to intelligently explore with such a tale… However unfortunately this is not the case.
Now before I get on to dissecting what gone wrong, please note that the following autopsy is jam packed with spoilers. There’s more spoiler here than consumer vultures at the last day of a major retail chains liquidation sale! Normally I try to avoid spoiler in these review, but in this case it’s pretty much impossible to discuss this film’s short comings without giving away all the plot twists. I know because I did try...
Ok then HEAVY SPOILER ALERT issued, so let’s see what’s on the slab…
The first thing that needs to be said is that Fincher has produced a remarkable film here. Visually it is stunning with lavish locations and vivid landscapes coupled with inventive camera work. Fincher also shows he is equally at home with capturing the smaller, more intimate character moments too. Indeed with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he proves that he can direct a whole lot more than the dark fare he well known for, and has constructed a an epic film which really wants to be an enduring classic.
And praise must also be given to the cast. All to man turn in great performances, which really helps the movie build a convincing, living breathing on screen world. Equally the special effects, both visual and make up, are top notch. Button’s aging is frankly amazing but equally impressive the digital trickery bringing the locations to life.
But despite an excellent director, a strong cast, good effects and beautiful cinematography, I came out to the movie dissatisfied and somewhat deflated. So where does it all go wrong? Well, the problems lie squarely with the script. Basically the storyline simply does not sustain the close to three hours running time. And crucially the film’s last act really does not pay off emotionally and the ending is not nearly powerful or moving enough to justify the two hours plus spent getting there.
Now it could be argued that tighter editing and simply cutting down the running time would result in a more satisfying and rounded film. For example, in the movie as it is, there is a subplot about Button and his father who abandoned him at birth. At the film’s opening, we see Button Snr. dumping his newborn son, then later we see Button meeting his father in bar, and finally we have a scene where his father reveals his identity and bequeaths him his fortune. So essentially here is a subplot that’s done and dusted in three separate incidents and thus does feel somewhat extraneous. However, if the film was cut down it may gain some of the weight you would expect of such a plot twist.
However after much reflection, I feel that the script’s weaknesses go a good deal deeper than the long running time. Even with re-editing to bring it in under the 2 hour mark, there are still too many missteps in the script. To return to the father subplot, even in a hypothetical abridged version to achieve any real drama you would really need a few more scenes of Button meeting his father over the years. Or at least the script would have to make more of an issue of his parentage. As it stands there no reference to this question - Button never wonders who his real parents are or why they abandoned him. So as the character doesn’t care, why should we?
This underdevelopment of key plot points really comes to the fore in the last third of the film, and scuppers the film’s resolution. Whereas the first half unfolds nicely both in terms of Button’s aging and the pace of the story, by the end all the momentum has unravelled. The film loses grip on the story’s timeline and after World War Two less attention is paid to the period settings.
But the main wrecking of the finale is down to the criminally brief way we are shown Button deciding to leave his lover and their newborn daughter. Basically his daughter is born and then he fucks off! Seriously, a momentary lapse of attention and you’ll miss it. Though the script mentions his reasons for doing this – that he can’t play the father as he is getting younger and younger - it is appallingly underdeveloped. And then, adding insult to injury, the story wraps up Button’s life with him ‘youthening’ back into infancy in what is effectively a montage. What should be the big emotional pay-off is just casually tossed away.
After investing several hours in this story (and losing all feeling in your legs and arse if you see this in a cinema) the grand conclusion needless to say it falls somewhat flat. Worse though it really damages any warmth you feel for Button’s character – he appears to make the pivotal decision to leave his child very quickly and then swans about the world in a lazy montage. Aside from the reveal he sent regular postcards to his daughter there’s no sense he really cares or any of the poignancy you’d think this would warrant.
Overall the last 30 minutes of the film really make you wonder why they bothered with this whole aging backwards conceit. To begin with, there’s no explanation given for his condition, nor does Button seek any treatment for it. And no one else in the screen world seems to question his condition either. Now this I can forgive, as the film is clearly a fable rather than a fantasy/sci-fi story. But the trouble is screen writer Eric Roth doesn’t seem to have thought through the implications of the premise, and worse seems to have found precious little to say on the subject of aging, reversed or otherwise. Indeed you could easily replace Button’s condition with a childhood disease that recurs to end his life by altering a mere handful of lines.
This is one of those film projects that has been in development for a good few years, and had several directors attached to it. So I do wonder how much leeway Fincher had with the script. Judging by his previous works, I suspect the screenplay was pretty much set in stone by the time he came to the director’s chair. Indeed the film is so beautifully made I have trouble believing he wouldn’t have noticed the script’s deficiencies and created a better developed ending.
Now I’ve ragged heavily on this film, and in fairness, I suspect if I’d seen this lounging on my comfy sofa with a few large drinks, I’d be inclined to be a little more forgiving of the story weakness. But I must stress it’s not an entirely terrible film, and there is much to enjoy and admire. It’s more a case that it’s annoyingly flawed. Indeed if there’d been a rewrite of the last third we would be looking at a modern classic. With a stronger end, we woold have had a film that could stand alongside the like of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Shawshank Redemption.
JIM MOON, 15th February 2009