With less than 48 hours to go until the oscar winners are announced, I finally got to see David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in a 'digital presentation' at my local picture house in Clapham.
I wouldn't describe myself as a huge fan of Fincher. I loved Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, but thought Panic Room was an extremely average 'thriller' best suited to TV prime-time. And I think all of Fincher's films are too long. Benjamin Button clocks in at just under 3 hours so the director's rather self-indulgent trend doesn't seem to have been broken with this latest oscar-nominated offering.
I left this film until last because of the luke-warm reviews from the British critics - the vast majority of whom seem to think it should NOT have been nominated for an oscar. I'm sorry to have to say I agree with them. OK, maybe it's worthy of a technical oscar for the special effects, but 'Best Film' or 'Best Director'? Gimme a break!
I thought Forrest Gump, which many of the critics have compared this film to - it shares the same writer - was a seriously over-rated film (not a bad one, just not one that deserved the 'Film of the Year' oscar) and alas, Benjamin Button plays out like Forrest Gump II, but without any of the original's charm or humour. Ridiculously neat and tidy, and overly-sentimental, one-sentence platitudes are laid on with a trowel in a series of anecdotes that make little sense, have little commonality, and just give the impression that the script-writers had no idea how to tell a basic story. Things pull together in the second half, when we finally start on the main story (a life-long romance) but it's not hard to see why friends talk about having walked out of the film before it finished - I nearly did the same myself, I found the first half so disjointed and irritating.
As the film opens we have a dying Daisy, played by Cate Blanchette, asking her daughter to read out loud a diary in her bag. The diary is that of one 'Benjamin Button', who turns out to have been the love of the dying woman's life, and the film then progresses as a series of 'out loud' readings that translate into episodic flashbacks, interrupted every 10-15 minutes by trips in real time back to the dying hospital bed scene. These constant interruptions become increasingly irritating because there's really nothing to say at the hospital (apart from one very obvious, cliched revelation about the daughter's father mid-way through the film), and the film-makers have to invent a rather silly 'Is Hurricane Katrina going to hit the hospital before Daisy dies?' sub-plot to try and justify the constant switches between the past and the present. This sort of tired story-telling has been done so often before we feel we're watching a re-run of countless other movies - except the constant time switches were justified in other films. Here, it becomes very obvious that they are only needed because the flashback scenes are so disjointed and irrelevant to each other (and also to the main romance theme that will start about an hour into the film) that the editors had no way of putting the various clips together so that they made any kind of sense.
The central conceit of the film - that Daisy's life-long love Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is a child who ages backwards, starting the film as an 'old man' baby and growing eventually into an Alzheimer's inflicted 5 year old - is surprisingly easy to take on board because the effects and make-up are so well done. However they just come across as a gimmick that wasn't really needed to tell the central message of the story, which seems to be about 'the meaning of life, death and loss'. The effects scenes in the latter part of the film don't work quite as well as the earlier ones - there's something not QUITE right about the 20 year-old Pitt compared with the 80 year-old one, so that just as one is starting to become immersed in the central story, one is taken out of it somewhat. Admittedly, things have come on quite a bit since the last time this sort of effect was used (to show a young Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men III) but it's hard to see it as much more than a mildly diverting gimmick that utlimately lessens the film rather than enhances it. And it's scary to think that in 20-30 years time, given the current rate of progress, punters will probably be able to see the likes of Richard Burton or Steve McQueen at any age in their career, playing new parts in new movies!
I'm glad I stayed to the end of the film, if only because the performances from Pitt and Blanchette are as perfect as one would expect them to be. But the whole thing felt like the pretentious, overlong, nonsensical piece of film-making many have accused it of, and it's hard to understand why this has been nominated in the 'Best Film' or 'Best Director' categories. Even in a digital presentation too much of the cinematography felt too dark and at times impenetrable (I'd even go so far as to say 'poorly lit') and overall I was disappointed with what felt like a wasted opportunity to tell a genuinely moving story.
Hopefully the American Academy will reflect the decisions made by the British Academy at last week's BAFTA's, and just give the film a few 'technical' oscars. Anything else would be a grave misjustice.
We'll all find out tomorrow morning (here in the UK - tonight for US readers) who the real winners are. I think this is the first year I've seen ALL of the films nominated, with a trip to Clapham Picture House later today meaning that I will also get to see all the Oscar-nominated short films as well. My gut feeling is that the supposedly leaked letter showing the oscar results (which the BBC have reported is a hoax) will reflect the final results. There's one or two minor disappointments in that list for me personally (most notably in the 'Best Film' and 'Best Actor' categories) but nothing too upsetting compared with past crimes (Chicago as 'Best Film'? - give me a break!) I almost wish I didn't have to work tomorrow so I could stay up all night and watch the results come in.