Best Picture Part 3: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Part Three of a Five Part series on the Best Picture nominees.

When The Dark Knight was regrettably left out of the Best Picture competition, it left The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as the lone crowd-pleaser among the nominees. As it turns out, Slumdog Millionaire was simply waiting for its nomination to rollout nationwide, and it will cross $100 million as well, but Button will end up with the clear lead at the box office when all is said and done.

But as crowd-pleasers go, it's certainly inspired mixed reactions: critics liked it overall, but they didn't necessarily like it to the tune of Oscar winner, settling at 71% positive on Word of mouth is relatively love it or hate it- it's beautiful! It's way too long! The romance is flat! The romance is moving!

I certainly enjoyed it, enough to see it again within a week (making it and The Dark Knight (four times, one in IMAX!) the only two films I saw more than once in theaters in 2008), but certain elements did seem to wear on me a little more the second time through. But they continue to grate more with time, or will Button settle on my shelf as a flawed but grandiose piece of filmmaking?

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Let's get my single biggest complaint out of the way- screenwriter Eric Roth, apparently motivated by the recent death of a parent, decided to have the film framed as an elderly woman, on her deathbed in a hospital amidst the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, relating her life story to her daughter by way of a mystery diary among her possessions.

So instead of the film begging in 1918 with the voice-over "My name is Benjamin, Benjamin Button," we get to spend twenty minutes trying vainly to understand a heavily accented, wheezing Cate Blanchett in old age makeup tell a random story about a backwards clock, and then ask her daughter to start reading Benjamin's diary, which transports us back with those words. Over the rest of the film, we occasionally come back to the hospital, usually serving no purpose other than pausing the story, or to hear a motivation from Blanchett that was pretty clear anyway.

Only once does any memorable element arise- (spoilers aplenty from here) the daughter turns out to be Benjamin's, and in the diary are postcards and letters written to her, but never sent. A letter, voice-overed in by Pitt, is set to a montage for a nice moment, cinematically, but the whole thing could've be worked in some other way.

The whole setup leads to plenty of logistics issues by setting a fantastic, era-spanning story in a modern, socially relevant context (not once does the daughter quibble with the whole "aging backwards" thing), plus it puts an exclamation point on the biggest criticism of the film, and my other big complaint:

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button takes place in a fairy-tale, magic New Orleans where there is no racism whatsoever, nor any race-related issues encountered by the African-American matron of an old folks home raising a white (if odd-looking) child she found on a doorstep.

In the film's defense, it would be difficult to address race during the story without it feeling like a callous footnote, though it has plenty of time to do so. But the addition of a framing device consciously set during a disaster which brought a huge focus on racial inequalities in the region, that focuses solely on the plight of two affluent white people- well. That sort of highlights the lack.

Beyond that however, I couldn't find a single thing wrong with the film- in fact, when I'm able to fast forward the framing bits, I'll be witness to a masterpiece. It's easier to write about the flaws of a film than the strengths any day, but there's a wealth of majesty in Button that's more than deserving of 13 Oscar nominations.

Fincher, in a triumphant arrival to the truly mainstream, still lights everything in blue or orange, but works flawless technical mastery in every department, from the digital mapping of Brad Pitt onto smaller actors to the World War One battle between a tugboat and a submarine. The film moves seamlessly in design and costuming from the begginning of the twentieth century to the near-present without having to reference too many specific events to spell out signifiers for us.

I've never been one to complain about a film's length, personally- I think something basic and arithmetical in me logically assumes I got more for my $9.00 that way- and Button certainly didn't overstay its welcome, framing device aside. Journeys should feel like journeys, and we need time for two life stories to unfold.

The central romance is realized well enough for me- plenty of people have pointed out that Roth just wrote Forrest Gump again (simple southern boy meets bohemian dancer girl as a child, later they reunite but she pushes him away, finally they reconnect but it ends tragically), and that Button mirrors that film in general arc, replacing the historical reimaginings with reverse aging wizardry, but so what? Art repeats itself, and if I saw Button first, I'd like it more. In an era of film with so many pointless remakes, I think I can stomach two great films that run parallel to one another.

The melodrama is even well-punctuated by occasional levity- did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning seven times? And the theme "life is what you make it" might've been a bit less than people were expecting, given the supernatural premise, but that doesn't make it less resonant.

All in all, it would be great if Button lost the framing device and engaged with race relations in a meaningful way, but it would be greedy to ask for brilliance to fall left and right into theaters every year (2007 spoiled us, it really did). The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a testament to the cinema of spectacle, of wondrous vision and achievements not possible in other media.

I think it'll demand plenty of repeat viewings- and not just for Lightning Guy. Though he's pretty awesome.

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