The Curious Case of Thirteen Damn Oscar Nominations

January 23, 2009 at 12:03 am 10 comments

Brad and CateI have to get this off my chest.  It’s hard, because a lot of people found this film moving and beautiful, so I feel like kind of a Grinch.  It has to be said, though.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is goddamn terrible.  It is shallow and vain and cloying and dumb.  It is like Forrest Gump and The Notebook rolled into one bloated, overly-sentimental, steaming pile of poo.

I don’t think this is David Fincher’s fault.  He’s a talented director, and the film itself was beautifully shot and carefully framed.  The highlight of the trailer- that scene of fallen soldiers leaping up in reverse and retreating from battle- is one of the best shots in the film.  It gave me goosebumps.

It’s at about 2:02, here.

That scene isn’t even part of Benjamin Button’s story.  It’s from another anecdote which is used, Magnolia-style, to set us up for the themes explored in the main film.  The trouble is, there’s more whimsy and wonder in that two minute anecdote than in the whole rest of the film.

The blame doesn’t lie with Brad Pitt or Cate Blanchett, either.  They’re both very talented actors, when they’re given something to work with.  The screenwriter, Eric Roth, gave them nothing.  Pitt’s character is a blank slate whose expression never changes, even as time warps his face.  He’s a wide-eyed innocent, even when he’s seen the world.  Blanchett plays one of the worst female characters in recent memory.  When she’s in her 20s, she’s a chattering, self-obsessed, obnoxious dancer.  She breaks her legs in a terrible car accident (oops, spoiler) and can never dance again.  We’re supposed to feel for her because of this tragedy, but honestly she never becomes more likable.  They’re not given a chance to have any real chemistry- the bulk of their relationship is in a series of montages, so we never get too close.

All that’s left to save the film is the plot, which is a complete mess.  First of all, the frame story.  A dying woman (old Cate Blanchett) lies in a hospital in New Orleans and asks her daughter to read from a journal.  The journal is Benjamin Button’s, of course, so every scene of his life is opened by the creaky narration of this not altogether likable daughter character, who we know nothing about.  Hurricane Katrina is currently approaching, so there’s a brief moment of drama when they must decide whether or not to stay in the hospital.  They decide to stay.  That is the end of the drama.

The rest of the film is just as uneven and anticlimactic.  You know the premise already- Brad Pitt is a man who was born elderly and gets physically younger as he ages.  The trouble is, no one he encounters is especially baffled by this.  His circle of acquaintances is relatively small, so every one pretty much already knows the deal and it’s never a source of real conflict.  At one point, the drunken sea captain friend of his happens to mention that Pitt seems to keep getting younger.  Pitt laughs it off with a reference to the man’s alcoholism, and it becomes a non-issue.  The one time it DOES come into play is when Pitt and Blanchett have a baby together.  At this point, Pitt is about 40, and looks his age.  Just after the girl turns one, Pitt decides it’s better for everyone if he leaves and never speaks to his daughter again.  This is fair, because his wife “shouldn’t have to raise two kids”, even though by the time his daughter is grown, he’ll still be in his twenties and have the mind of a fifty or sixty year old.  He leaves and we see a montage of the daughter reading the one postcard he sent each year, along with scenes of Pitt cruising through Tibet on his motorcycle or climbing the Alps or whatever.  Oh yeah, and he inherited a whole lot of money and so is independently wealthy and never has to work or worry about coworkers noticing his condition.  Science apparently doesn’t exist in this world, so no one ever looks at him with a critical eye and wonders what’s really wrong with him.

I guess that’s the fundamental problem.  Brad Pitt is playing this fantastical, magical character, and so we should see him in the context of an unforgiving,  realistic world.  He should have to grapple with this, and his condition should have an effect on the people he loves.  Instead, he abandons his wife and daughter, has some affairs, and travels a lot.  The world he inhabits is just as unrealistic as his condition, so there’s no basis for comparison.  There is no cause and effect. He floats dumbly from one event in his life to the next, never learning or growing.  When he is an old man in a young body, this is what should be the pivotal moment of the film.  This should be the tearjerker.  We should see a man aware of what he is about to lose, given a young body but no longer naive enough to enjoy youth.  They could counter the old maxim that “youth is wasted on the young.”  It could be GREAT.  What they do, however, is give him dementia when he’s about ten/seventy, and he doesn’t have any dialogue for the remaining twenty minutes of the film.  It takes a great concept and turns it into something banal and ultimately pointless.

So why did it receive 13 Oscar nominations?  That one’s easy.  The Academy exists to reward mediocrity.  Look at the 2005 Best Picture nominees.  You’ve got Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich.  Normally one or two of the Best Picture nominees are actually deserving, but that year we had four.  Four of those films were moving, well-made, well-acted, and perfect examples of what cinema can accomplish.  And Crash, the hamfisted bullshit ‘message’ film, won.  So, Benjamin Button, you can have your Oscars.  You can have your stupid magic realist hummingbirds in the North Atlantic, and you can have your lousy frame story.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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Entry filed under: Aspect Fellatio, Betty, Miscellaneous Musings. Tags: , , , , , .

Jerk Me Off Shepard Fairey

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. A Bailes  |  January 23, 2009 at 4:05 am

    I haven’t seen it but I totally understand your point that there is massive potential for a plot like that. Oh the things you could say and the meaning you could attach! It’s one of those deals where you wish you woulda wrote the damn thing.

    But what’s even crazier (and was my impetus for writing this) is that Agnes showed me this article in the New England Journal of Medicine about this disease in children in which their cells age rapidly after birth and eventually begin early cell death. Sadly, it’s fatal and there’s no cure…BUT the degenerative process that occurs within the cells is similar to what happens during aging…so there’s tons of research trying to find the cause and reverse the process….leading to…dun dun dun…secret to longer life!

    P.S. I just searched a little because I wanted to remind myself of the name of the disease. It’s called Progeria disease. Is this what Brad Pitt supposedly has in the movie?

    Reply
  • 2. Pedro  |  January 23, 2009 at 4:56 am

    Oh yeah, Betty definitely. What a terrible, terrible movie. Eric Roth should be burned at the stake along with Paul Haggis.

    And this year’s Oscar nominations are a shame. There’s not ONE good movie in sight. Okay, I haven’t seen Milk yet, but what the hell, The Reader? Frost/Nixon? And to think that last year we had No Country for Old Men AND There Will Be Blood…

    Thank you for coming forward and trying to put some sense back into people. Benjamin Button is a tremendous disappointment, especially after Fincher’s Zodiac, which was, in my opinion, his best one to date: 160 minutes of nothing even remotely interesting to say.

    Reply
  • 3. Pedro  |  January 23, 2009 at 5:01 am

    Oh, and seriously! Frost/Nixon is a MASTERPIECE next to Slumdog Millionaire.

    Reply
  • 4. parkrangerolivia  |  January 23, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Every time I see a fantasy movie/book now, all I can think of it the Time Traveller’s Wife and how they did that RIGHT. the perfect blend of magic, science, and raw emotion. Benjamin Button just sounds like a snow globe: full of wonder and enchantment but ultimately thick and impenetrable.

    Reply
  • 5. Betty  |  January 23, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    I have to confess that I haven’t seen any of the other Best Picture noms, but I want to like Slumdog Millionaire. 2008 was a miserable year for movies. The best thing I saw this year was Funny Games probably, or else Twilight. Admittedly, I only saw about 5 films in theaters, but there wasn’t a lot to go on.

    Benjamin Button wasn’t impenetrable so much as completely transparent. The motivations of the screenwriter are TOO obvious. The makeup effects are, I thought, really convincing. I should have been wrapped up in the characters, but instead I was thinking about the effects. There was nothing to capture my interest otherwise.

    And to answer Bailey’s question- progeria is like what Robin Williams had in “Jack” (oh god that movie is bad). In this, he starts out as an infant-sized child with the body of an 80 year old man. He ages BACKWARDS. So by the time he’s 10, he has the body of a 70 year old. When he’s 50, he looks like a thirty year old, and when he’s actually 80, he’s a six-foot tall baby. (He’s not really six feet tall but he SHOULD have been. That would have been awesome.)

    Reply
  • 6. A Bailes  |  January 23, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Do you think that if they casted this little guy the movie woulda been nominated?

    Reply
  • 7. Betty  |  January 23, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    Hah, probably not. But the problem isn’t even the cast, it’s fucking Eric Fucking Roth. Pedro’s right. He and Paul Haggis should both be banished and forbidden from ever being within 500 yards of a screenplay.

    Reply
  • 8. seph  |  January 23, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    I had a chance to see this at the cinema the other day but blew it off to watch My Bloody Valentine 3D instead. Looks like I made the right choice.

    Seriously, a guy leaves his kid to go wander Tibet, and we’re meant to find him a sympathetic main character? Lame.

    Reply
  • 9. Betty  |  January 23, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Yeah, I nearly walked out at that point, I was so upset. I should have seen My Bloody Valentine in 3D instead, because come on! THREE DEE!

    Reply
  • 10. alisaurus  |  January 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Very thoughtful review, even if you did use the word “whimsy.” God I hate that word. You redeemed yourself by saying “hamfisted” again.
    And in reference to Slumdog Millionaire, I really really enjoyed watching it – I was genuinely entertained and they’re weren’t kidding when they said “feel good film of the year.” I don’t know if I would classify it as being an amazing artistic work of film though, and was actually really surprised that it got nominated for Best Cinematography when it looked so doc-style and TV-style in it’s approach to camera. Somehow I feel like it’s sort of an underdog though, and while it may not be the “best film” out there, I wouldn’t mind if it won, despite Danny Boyle’s repeated and unnecessary montage flashbacks to things that just happened in the movie.

    Reply

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