Here is a film in which I was under the impression I didn't need to see as I had seen the whole thing in the trailer. If you don't already know, go watch the trailer and come back, because - spoiler alert! - I'm going to reveal a bit about the plot in this review. Not much, but the big hook, which is this: Benjamin Button is born old and throughout the film, grows young. He has one true love in his life, a girl named Daisy, and the question is, how can these two be lovers? Can a 7 year old girl love a 7 year old boy who looks like he's 77? Will they meet in the middle? Or will time and circumstance leave them star crossed forever? These are interesting enough questions, and an interesting plot device. And if you want to see how it plays out and how the movie ends, once again I recommend heading over and watching the trailer. You'll feel like you know.
You'd be wrong, of course, as there is almost two hours and forty-five minutes of sumptuous film laid out to tell the story of Benjamin. There's a moment at the very beginning where hundreds of buttons fall from the sky and suddenly arrange themselves into the Paramount Pictures logo - followed immediately by more buttons which fall into the Warner Bros logo. This bit of CGI trickery is a good microcosm of the whole film. What starts as many different familiar pieces coming from a new place slowly fall into something we've seen many, many times before. The "a-ha" moment of recognizing the logo is a bit of a let down - if only the buttons had arranged to make something new.
The film is at its best in its early mysteries. Why is Benjamin aging backwards? (It's apparently tied to Teddy Roosevelt, WWI doughboys, a blind clock maker, and public transportation). And why are we learning this story from the New Orleans hospital bedside of a dying woman, who has insisted her visiting daughter (Julia Ormond) read aloud Button's diary as Hurricane Katrina comes ever closer? Director David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) and cinematographer Claudio Miranda contrast the realistic present day reality with the hyper-real, Caruso Properties style vision of the past, where we meet Benjamin, who is played by Brad Pitt almost immediately after infancy.
It's easy to forget and dismiss how fine a film actor Pitt is when his ability to perform is not first to come to mind for most - sexiest man alive, maybe, or Mr. Angelina Jolie. Pitt, in convincing age makeup and unsettling, Smeagolesque CGI work, disappears into the character of Button in his early life as an elder man with pathos, world weariness, and juvenile curiosity all at once. He is a delightful, cuddly creature who is easy to root for. The seed of his love with the girl Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is planted, and off we go to hope for their union. This tale carries us along through a wonderful interlude with the incomparable Tilda Swinton, playing a woman living in Russia married to a spy with more than steeped tea on her mind.
By the time the bombs drop on Pearl Harbor, however, and a shootout occurs at sea (you caught that in the trailer, right?), I found myself with the feeling that I was starting to see something I'd seen before - namely, Forrest Gump, a character who also stumbled with crutches in his childhood, had a loving mama who inspired him to break free and walk, and grew in the Great American History of war, women, and computer generated images, a film also penned by Button screenwriter Eric Roth.
Much has been written about the age makeup used for this film, and it does not disappoint. More impressive than the old age getup, though, is the young age wizardry. Blanchett, who not only ages in this film, is a stunning 19 year old ballerina, and the longer Button's life goes on, the younger Pitt becomes, for much longer than you would think the actor could continue playing the part.
That is part of the film's problem, however, as the early life-older Benjamin Button we follow for almost an hour and a half seems to vanish, replaced with Brad Pitt. The man painting his house in the 1960s doesn't appear to have grown from the man we saw earlier. In a line straight out of The Cool Surface, a staring woman says to Benjamin "You're perfect," and the audience giggles.
What started as an intriguing meditation on when life begins and ends, how one chooses to live it, and how we choose to spend the time we're given spins into a standard story of women in the 70s with straight hair, kissing naked on the beach, and being accepted for who you are. Why no one except a very fleeting few in all of Button's 80 years find it odd that he is growing younger is left to perhaps a few torn pages out of his diary.
The film is worth seeing, probably not worth seeing twice. It is beautiful to look at when it feels real - a solo ballet by Blanchett on a misty gazebo could be a Degas painting. There's a convenient man who is owner of a Button factory that shows up from time to time that may have had dramatic tension but seems to serve only to allow Benjamin some yacht time. And despite numerous returns to the present and desperate news announcers, the devastation of hurricane Katrina is as dangerous and real as a running gag of an old fellow repeating his same life story. The film does reach its inevitable conclusion, with some soul searching voiceover by Button about what it takes to live a life, but this is a Benjamin who has let go of the lives of others far too easily. What started as an extraordinary life winds up being just a curious case of Benjamin Button. For a guy with a most unique perspective, he sure has it good.
-Nine Inch Nails - Nothing screams "Ohio" quite like a 40-year-old Goth. At his age he really shouldn't care how many people think he's cool.
-Dave Matthews (John Mayer, Jack Johnson)- Not a fan of dorm-rock. Hiked up acoustic guitar, funky-ish rhythms, and choked vocals can't make up for a lack of soul.
-Eric Clapton - Being the greatest blues guitarist from England is a dubious distinction at best. Kind of like being the greatest German rapper. Or the greatest Russian disco dancer.
-Red Hot Chili Peppers - The immenseness of any of their grooves is immediately neutralized the moment that dude starts "rapping". Case in point: "I know, I know for sho', ding-dang-dong-dong-ding-dang-dong-dong-ding-dang." What the fuck is that shit?
-Beastie Boys- Y'all. Seriously, can you name one of their rhymes that's really that good? Me neither. Further, I can't shake the creepy feeling that at least one of those dudes is a closet Republican..
Weekly: Dengue Fever - Like a bad karaoke night at my sister's house. 2 parts indie rock, 1 part world music. That even looks bad on paper.
Status Update: Richard is grieving the loss of his childhood best friend and fears he might be a latent serial killer...
After this news was socially networked to me I continued on with my day as usual, but then I started getting these pop-ups, “Hey, Rich, why isn’t this affecting you? Shouldn’t you be emotional?” This concerned me because when I assess myself, you know, a 35 year old Caucasian male, college grad, with an affinity for handling the meat snake AND I add “void of emotion” to that list, I get concerned that I might be a latent serial killer. Well, somehow I mange to get through the day without burying a drifter or two along the highway and make it home to my wife and son. I give my baby boy a bath, put him to bed and sit down with my wife for dinner. She asks, “How was your day?” “Well, my buddy, Tommy, died of a drug overdose.” “That’s awful.” “Yeah, it’s pretty bad.” “You okay?” “Yeah, I’m just having a little trouble getting my head around it. All my memories of him are as a teenager. I have no reference for him as a man. You know? What he looked like as a man, what his life was like. I just wished I knew what hap…” And that was it. Crying and convulsing ensued and it just kept happening over and over again in that order. I think that’s why most people/families advocate not talking about things, because, boy, as soon as you start jabbering you run the risk of opening up a whole can of emotional worms which can then be used as bait to snare some very, very large emotional fish that lurk in the cold, dark depths of your soul and once you hook one of those porkers you only got two choices: 1) wrestle the fucker into the boat and take a bat to it, or 2) delivering Colonel Sanders down to Davy Jones locker. It was bat night at my house.
The next day I arrived at work feeling pretty bright eyed and bushy tailed after my cathartic serial killer negating moment. Shortly after arriving, my partner came in and took a seat at her desk and asked, as she does every morning, “How was your night?” “It was a little sad”, I said. You know my friend di…” Fuck, again with the crying and convulsing! I decided that it would be best for me to take the day off and get myself together. Knock out the grieving process, which I Googled. They break it into 5 stages: 1) Denial & Isolation. 2) Anger. 3) Bargaining. 4) Depression. 5) Acceptance. I left work at noon to get the process in motion. I needed to return to work tomorrow at 8am. That gives me 20 hours of grieving time. That’s 4 hours per stage, but you know I have the ability to get a lot of stuff done when I get really focused. So, here goes. I can’t believe there are 5 stages to this grieving process! 5 stages!! By myself!!! Are you kidding me!!!! Ahhhhhhhhh!!!!! I’d give the guy who came up with these stages five hundred bucks to knock off just one or two of ‘em! Please! Okay, five-fifty. I’m so tired, but it’s cool. Done. Now, if I could just get started on Tommy.
My mother sent me a text stating that she “awoke this morning with a heavy heart, for it is as if our families were one”. My mom is very grand and very southern. So when she texts me it’s like I’m receiving Blanche Dubois rewrites from David Mamet.
Here’s the problem, all my technological advances can’t out pace my advancing sadness. I want to hit the “esc” button on my life and disappear into the wilderness. Find a cave where I can scream and cry, claw and punch, rip off my clothes and build a massive fire. Hurl myself around the flames and through them until I collapse. Then I could wake up stronger and walk out clean. Restart the system. The only glitch in this program is that I’d still have all this memory.
It was August of 2004 and I had settled down at a table in the Marymount Manhattan dining hall. Marymount Manhattan College is a very small liberal arts college nestled safely in Manhattan's Upper East Side. The school is known predominantly for its performing arts programs but also served as a safety school for wealthy, budding sophisticates scattered across the country. Most were drawn to the prospect of living in New York City while in the sheltered hollow of higher education.
The hall was alive with the bustle of students shuffling in and out and congregating at the tables that surrounded me. I was in the second year of my belated quest to achieve my bachelors degree at the ripe age of thirty-three. As I sat down to a meal of chicken fingers and tater tots-made soft under the glare of heating lamps-I opened my recently arrived Atlantic Monthly and began mindlessly turning the pages.
I knew what an anomaly I was already in this context but I certainly wasn't helping matters by my choice of reading material. I'm sure Atlantic Monthly was a magazine that most buzzing about me had probably only seen on their father's desk at home or in doctor's offices. I was painfully self-aware both in and out of the classroom while on "campus"-which was really just two buildings connected by a basement hallway. I decided to embrace the affectation of a pendant in an effort to combat, what I was sure was the prevailing back story circulating around campus about me, that of a tenth year Senior or worse still the "weird old dude".
So while silently trying to quell the voices in my head and derive the nutritional benefits bereft in student cuisine, I came across a one page feature that would temporarily relieve me from my identity crisis. And, plant a seed of that over time, with much nurturing, would have me believe in the impossible again. In some ways this story inspired me on my path toward my degree, in coming to terms with the incredible debt that would accompany said degree, and in eventually re-establishing some tenuous connection with my fellow students.
What strikes me now as I reflect on this scene, burned indelibly by the triumph of Obama's candidacy, is how many of those students-as yet unaware of the "skinny man with a funny name"-would join in the cause to help elect him. How, by the virtue of reading one article, I would begin to monitor a politician who did not represent me directly (he was still a state senator in Illinois at the time of the article). How I was moved to go home and make my wife promise to register to vote if he ever ran for President (a feat, seemingly no less insuperable than Obama's improbable victory). How I vowed to participate once again as a member of the electorate and to work for his campaign if it ever came to pass. How, when I saw him deliver his now famous "Audacity of Hope" speech a month later at the Democratic National Convention-on behalf of nominating Senator John Kerry for President-real chills passed through my idealism depraved body.