Thursday, 30 March 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #4 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Benjamin Button is born, on the final day of the First World War, with the body of an old man.  He lives a full life and dies at the end of the twentieth century with the body of a baby.  So, in a sense, he lives life backwards: as a child, still learning about the world, he battles with arthritis and physical decrepitude; as a mature adult, blessed with the insights accumulated from decades of experience, he has the athletic body of a teenager.

His mother dies giving birth to him and his father, repulsed by his appearance, abandons him on the steps of a residential home for the elderly.  He grows up with the owner of the home as his mother.  The setting is New Orleans.  His mother is black; Benjamin is white.

We the audience learn this, and everything else about Benjamin’s life, in flashback.  An elderly woman is dying in a hospital bed.  She, too, is in New Orleans.  A great storm is developing outside.  Her daughter is soothing her mother by reading from a journal.  It is Benjamin Button’s journal.  It becomes clear that the dying woman was the great love of Benjamin’s life.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - based on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald – thus provides the opportunity to explore several Big Themes.  The inescapable passage of time – check.  A brief history of the twentieth century – check.  A prism on the race relations in the USA – check.  A powerful and tragic love story – check.  An opportunity for philosophical reflection on a range of features of the human condition – check.

It must have looked good in theory: A-list actors (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett), heavyweight production and direction teams (it was initially optioned by Steven Spielberg), big budget, awesome special effects, a quirky narrative device.  It even garnered thirteen Academy award nominations.

In practice, however, it is dismally turgid.  The messages are bludgeoned over and over again.  The pacing is awful.  The philosophy is laboured and trite.  It is also, at more than two and a half hours, far too long.  (It won three Oscars – for Best Art Direction, Best Make Up and Best Visual Effects – which kind of tells you all you need to know.  When was the last time you went to the cinema to admire the make up?)

It took me three goes to watch this film – my first two attempts were interrupted when I dozed off.  If a review ought in some way to emulate the art upon which it comments, then this review ought either to be painfully long and boring, or written backwards.  Both seem to represent an excessive ask of the reader.  I thus relieve you not only of the need to read further, but also of any obligation you may have felt to watch the film.


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