Monday, February 09, 2009

Munchausen Weekend

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I'm somewhat invested in this movie simply by virtue of the fact that it is loosely (VERY DAMN LOOSELY) based on a great short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I'm not just a fan of Fitzgerald, I'm actually presenting a paper at the 10th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference in Baltimore this September. So let there be no mistake: I knew going in I would hate this movie. That I would most likely loathe this movie - and yet, I paid for my ticket all the same. Why? Well, at the risk of poking the bear, sometimes you get more fun out of doing something - going to see a movie or watching a TV show or reading an event comic book - that you know full well you are going to hate, just so you can kvetch about it afterwards.

I knew I'd probably have a very visceral reaction to Sky Blue Sky but I bought it anyway, because I'm a Wilco fan and part of being a fan is being able to get something out of both the good and the bad. I went to see Wilco last year when they were in town and sure enough, they played a bunch of songs off of Sky Blue Sky, and they didn't once apologize to everyone who bought the album and thought it was a stupid piece of shit. That's OK, I didn't really expect them too. I enjoyed the show even if it pissed me off tremendously, and in fact, that experience probably made the show more memorable than half a dozen shows I've been to where there was nothing particularly spectacular going on either way. I also have copies - in one form or another - of all 300 issues of Cerebus, even if pretty much every issue between #187 and #300 made me angry to some degree. Despite that, I've still spent more time thinking about Cerebus - good and bad - than just about any other comic I can think of. Admittedly, I think my relationship with Cerebus is vastly more complicated than my relationship with Wilco - my investment in Wilco comes out to, like, maybe $100 over the past decade, counting the version of The Wilco Book with all the band's signatures on it, whereas I've spent at least $4-500 on Cerebus over the years, counting phonebooks, floppies and miscellany. Plus, the worse Jeff Tweedy ever did was get high on oxycontin, it's not like he published manifestos on the inherent cultural inferiority of women (that I know of!).

But Benjamin Button is easier to hate. It is, quite simply, a horrible movie. "Sure", you may be saying, "I knew that from the beginning, that's why I didn't pay good money to see it, unlike you." But it's so monumentally bad that it actually crosses back over into good, by virtue of it's sheer cynicism. "Cynical," you say, "surely you don't mean the same movie I saw, with it's heart-warming family-friendly generational epic warmed over Forrest Gump sentimentality?"

Hear me out. The thing is, I actually like Forrest Gump. It wasn't the Best Picture that year, but you know, it was a pretty fine little movie, corny as hell but essentially innocuous. (Although, if you've read Winston Groom's book, you know the movie doesn't hold a candle to the extremely funny original - less whimsy, more pot smoking and sex.) But although Gump has become shorthand for a certain type of reprehensibly corny bullshit Hollywood picture, I think the original holds up well. It just feels a little more honest than the imitators - even though it's mercilessly sappy, for the most part it plays fair with the audience. You know from the very first frame it's a fairy tale, and if you can accept that it's a fine picture. Not a lot to say about much of anything, but fun. It's a kind film, and there's nothing really wrong with that.

Benjamin Button feels like they reverse engineered Gump and put it together for optimum efficiency in the most ruthless manner possible. Every scene, every character, every damn line is weighted for its maximum heart-string pulling quotient (or, MHSPQ). Sure enough, it was written by the same guy who wrote the screenplay for Gump. But who directed it? David Fincher. Yeah, the guy who made Se7en and Fight Club and The Game - all those wonderfully paranoid headgame thrillers that seemed so very zeitgeisty back in the 90s, and still hold up remarkably well. His more recent films have been a bit less overtly weird - but still, we're talking movies about serial killers and home invasion, still not heartwarming puppies. So what happened? I imagine he woke up one day and decided he wanted to win an Oscar and make a lot more money. He wasn't going to win any trophies producing horror films about serial killers, no matter how awesome they may have been (Silence of the Lambs notwithstanding).

And it shows: for all it's ostensibly fuzzy content, this is really a brutally efficient film. To put it bluntly, the movie is nothing but money shot after money shot of family friendly goop, squirting aphorisms and feel-good tripe and pseudo-mystical destiny and predestination eternal love crap across the audience's faces every few minutes like clockwork. This movie is a huge throbbing organ of sentimental life-affirming romantic tumescence aimed at the open orifices of every available geriatric Academy voter. It's awesome in its absolute concession to vulgarity - the movie might as well have been titled For Your Consideration. I doff my hat to you, Benjamin Button - I did not believe a movie could be as shamelessly pandering as you. You have proven me wrong, and in doing so, reaffirmed my faith in humanity. And also, my hats off to Fincher, who has to be laughing his way to the bank. If someone offered me a pile of cash to massage a piece of steaming tripe for public consumption and possibly win an Oscar in the process, I'd jump at the chance too, so I can't criticize him on that score.

So, F. Scott Fitzgerald is still 0 for - hell, I don't even know - as far as film adaptations of his stories go. This is definitely worse than Robert Redford's forgettable Great Gatsby, and probably better Christopher Lloyd's Pat Hobby adaptation. But the thing is, Button can only vaguely be described as an adaptation of Fitzgerald's story in the loosest manner. Sure, you've got a basic idea in common, but the execution is entirely different. Fitzgerald's story is mainly funny, with bits of whimsy and a tiny bit of melancholy thrown in between the jokes. In the story, Button isn't born as a weird fragile elderly baby, he comes out of the womb chomping a cigar and asking if he could get some clothes. He tries to go to college and gets turned away by the admissions office, he plays football for a couple years until he becomes young and scrawny. Etc, etc. It's no longer than fifteen pages, basically a fable. There's no parental melodrama, no mystical backwards clocks, no being raised in an old folks home - hell, there are more black people in this film than the whole of Fitzgerald's entire corpus. And boy, it's nice to know there was no such thing as racism in 1920s New Orleans.

So yeah, a great film, highly recommended.

No comments :