Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Curious Case of Brad Pitt

Brad and Cate ponder his physical perfection in Benjamin Button.

Perhaps the most disappointing piece of Oscar bait this year has been The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher's weirdly melancholic vehicle for Brad Pitt, who starred in both the director's best previous movies, Fight Club and Seven. In this case the third time has not been the charm, however: Button is a beautifully realized bummer, calmly magisterial yet strangely bland, a curiosity made all the more curious by the knowledge it's been a pet project of Fincher's for years.

So what went wrong?

Perhaps the mere fact of all that time in development: Button is by now so far removed from its source - a coarse little farce by F. Scott Fitzgerald - that almost everything about it feels synthetic, and assembled by a committee. The story's time frame has been pushed into the boomer era, and pointlessly studded with cultural touchstones like the Beatles' performance on Ed Sullivan, probably because its final screenwriter, Eric Roth, wrote Forrest Gump (a reader has alerted me that a précis of correspondences between the two movies can be found here). It's been re-set in New Orleans because of tax incentives (hence, I suppose, a very odd subplot involving Hurricane Katrina). And perhaps most importantly, the frustrated energies of its hero, who finds himself living his life backwards, have been sublimated away to suit the limits of its star, Brad Pitt.

Of course Pitt also provides the movie with its one resonance. His own beauty (as well as his alienation from that beauty) gives the film a steady, subdued emotional pull. Like Benjamin, Brad seems outside time - his golden looks have only been burnished by age - but unlike Benjamin, he seems at one remove from his situation. Whereas, one would imagine, the average Joe would be elated by the awareness that he's growing younger with each day, and then slowly realize, with dawning regret, that his physical youth will be dogged by the sadness of age, Pitt traces no such arc in his performance. Instead he simply allows himself to be revealed as the film goes on, and various levels of digital imagery are lifted like veils from a statue. At last he stands before us in his true, apollonian form, and we are duly impressed, even fascinated; or at least briefly, the film's devotion to its star seems justified - we, too, just want to look at him.

But then there's this half-baked plot that keeps getting in the way - actually, several plots. And Brad doesn't deeply connect with any of them, perhaps because their particulars feel somehow incidental to the elegant ongoing pity party, and the movie never picks up on any of their actual themes. Benjamin's first love affair, conducted "after hours" (tellingly enough) in a lonely hotel, never fully conveys the idea that we sense is its raison d'être - that love must exist somehow outside time. Likewise the hero's survival of a submarine attack after World War II doesn't actually seem to underline his solitude; with a little thought, we can figure out that's the scene's point, but it never seems to take dramatic form on screen. By the time the main plot gets started - his love affair with Cate Blanchett's bohemian ballet dancer, "Daisy" (wait, isnt' she in another Fitzgerald story?) - Benjamin should seem scarred by time, even though he's alarmingly fresh-faced. Isn't this strange dichotomy the movie's point? But instead Pitt seems merely friendly but distant, as he did in the very first scene.

Blanchett does her best against this ravishing disinterest - in one scene she literally throws herself at Pitt - but it's a losing game, and Fincher and Roth deprive her character of any real emotional journey, anyway. I suppose it's giving away no secrets to reveal that the budding dancer's career is ruined when her leg is crushed in a car wreck - and once again, as this plot point passes we do the thematic work in our heads for the movie: obviously, time has once again intervened against passion and made it absurd. Fincher even devises an elaborate reprise of Run Lola Run for the fatal scene, to seemingly emphasize the cruel randomness of time's dominion. Only Blanchett never gets to rage against her fate, or realize that she, like Benjamin, is being prevented from developing as she "should." Instead she fast-forwards to melancholic, beautifully posed acceptance, as she does later (even more incredibly) when Benjamin abandons her once she's given birth to their daughter. Again, we think through the ramifications of this dramatic event. We even see intellectually the larger themes at play; of how Cate and Brad's love is a beautiful intersection of streams moving in opposite directions, etc., etc. But the movie offers us nothing dramatically to back this up; Brad simply sheds a single tear and leaves the scene. For Tibet (of course).

If I wanted to, I suppose I could analyze all this lacquered melancholia as a different form of cultural manifestation. Perhaps Cate's passivity reflects the mindset of all the girls (of both genders) who worship at Brad's altar, but who know deep inside they have no chance of ever connecting with him. Perhaps at an even deeper level, Benjamin Button limns the curious case of the consumer public, which now lives and dreams at a digitized, virtual remove from actual society. Love is no longer a commitment but a cosmic hook-up, which we decouple from with a dutiful, sweet sadness; and conflict and compromise are just so, well, passé. Of course, if your cosmic hook-up is with Brad Pitt, maybe that's not so bad.

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