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IT ALWAYS depresses me when every single movie at the cineplex that might be termed sf or fantasy is yet another exploding superhero comic book adaptation or one more generic horror bloodbath. It makes for hard choices as a film critic and even harder choices as a movie fan who wants to go out for the evening in expectation of actually enjoying the film for which one is plopping down ten (or more) hard-earned dollars.
Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey may come along only once in a generation, but is it too much to ask for a film with a bit of artistic flair, or at least a modicum of dignity and a respect for actual storytelling? As it turns out, not always. This past winter, we had a couple of movies that generally respected both their own artistic process and the intelligence of their movie-going public.
The first was a high-prestige Oscar-pitched release with star power and a literary pedigree. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald—which isn't necessarily a lucky connection. Fitzgerald has had a rocky relationship with Tinseltown, both as a drunken screenwriter and as a literary lion adapted by others. There have been plenty of Hollywood versions of Fitzgerald novels and stories, and most have been dreadful.
Benjamin Button is considerably better than dreadful. But it too led a troubled existence for many years. As adapted by Robin Swicord (Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha), it first made the rounds in 1990 and went through more than a dozen drafts, at one point named one of the "Ten Best Unproduced Screenplays" by Premiere magazine. Beyond any possible deficiencies in Ms. Swicord's writing, the main challenge of bringing Benjamin Button to the screen was no doubt a technical one. How do you convincingly show a man aging in reverse on the screen? For, in case any F&SF reader has been isolated from media in the last several months, that is precisely what Fitzgerald's 1922 story was about.
As a callow twentysomething, Fitzgerald was, it is said, encouraged by his editor Maxwell Perkins to write a story inspired by a Mark Twain observation that it would be "infinitely happier" if human existence spanned from worst to best, with a man "born at the age of 80," later to "approach 18." Yet in another example of adaptation not going well, the resulting development of Twain's idea did not result in a particularly good short story. (Twain was, in my opinion, a much better writer.) Fitzgerald toyed with the aging backward conceit, in a mildly farcical and oddly literal-minded way, but did little with the dramatic possibilities of living such a life. And he clearly had no interest in making his fantasy plausible in any way—as he has the baby Benjamin born as a 5'8" oldster—a fetus no woman could possibly bear!—speaking perfect, if querulous, English.
It is understandable then that when screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) was brought in to have another go at a screenplay, he wandered far afield of the Fitzgerald yarn. His retelling (shifted from Baltimore to New Orleans, for the better production tax breaks) spans from the end of WWI to the ravages of Katrina. The story, also credited to Swicord, starts with a less absurd infant-sized Benjamin—who is born wizened and seemingly deformed, but at the very least is no bigger than your average eight-pound newborn.
Roth even attempts to account for the "usual circumstances" of Mr. Button's birth. It apparently has something to do with an ornate rail station clock built by a blind clock maker (Elias Koteas) who designed it to run backward in the vain hope that all the young men slaughtered in the Great War could somehow come back to life. Literally turning back the clock didn't return a generation of youth to their families but it did apparently launch one armistice baby into a backward trajectory through life.
It's an odd story, to be sure. And to bring it to screen would require a director comfortable not only in fantasy, but in taking a story in unexpected directions. Although he might not have seemed the obvious choice, you can see how David Fincher (Fight Club, Alien3) was a semilogical helmer for the project. Fincher isn't afraid of film technology, but is no slave to whiz-bang. And his moody, dark stylishness might be able to counteract some of the more sentimental and clichéd aspects of an Eric Roth screenplay.
And then there is the ability to attach Brad Pitt, a close friend, to a project.
Pitt is one of the few current lead actors of Hollywood who retains the air of a true "movie star." Yet despite his obvious good looks, there is a kind of opacity to his screen work. (Perhaps we just can't get past how pretty he is.) But David Fincher has been able to exploit this quality in their earlier collaborations (Se7en, Fight Club), and was able to do the same in Benjamin Button.
Of course, for much of the film, Mr. Pitt looks very little like the handsome, swoonable star. Once we get past the shriveled and misshapen baby stage, we have multiple stages in which digitized and greatly aged versions of Brad's face are superimposed on body doubles in the form of a dwarf, a disabled man, and various other males of a variety of ages. This was done to show the gradual progression from the old and infirm to vital midlife and on to youth.
The digital special effects and makeup are, as many awards have indicated, excellent and quite believable. They serve the story, without dominating it, just as F/X are supposed to do. But making a real story—at least one the least bit plausible—out of the high concept of reverse aging was no easy feat. It isn't enough simply to have a man age backward. He somehow had to live a semblance of a genuine existence on the way to babyhood.
Fitzgerald acknowledged the singular nature of his character's life and allowed it to create a scandal, of sorts, in Baltimore society—at the occasion of his birth and marriage—but otherwise indicated that it was little more than an inconvenience to the hero, an annoyance to his family, and an uninteresting anomaly to the rest of the world (who consistently refused to believe his real age). But since the filmmakers wished to bring their story into the later twentieth and early twenty-first century, their challenge was much greater.
We live in a tabloid age. And if a single mother cannot have octuplets without causing a clamorous hue and cry in every form of electronic media, imagine what a man aging backward would do? Not wanting the story to be about media frenzy, Roth and Fincher keep their hero often isolated, with all but two of his relationships, both with women, completely transient in nature. Instead of leaving Benjamin with his family, Roth kills his mother in childbirth and has his button-manufacturing father abandon him, conveniently enough, at an old-age home maintained by a saintly black woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who improbably adopts the misshapen "child of god" as the baby she never had.
Not only does an old-looking child fit in easily with the inhabitants of the retirement home, but those often senile inmates were also often nice enough to die before Benjamin made too drastic a change in his appearance. The one exception is the granddaughter of a female retiree, an enchanting and vivacious girl named Daisy (played first by Elle Fanning, then Madisen Beaty, and eventually by the exquisite Cate Blanchett). It is she who is destined to be the semitragic love of Benjamin's life. But since it would have been too creepy—although, come to think of it, Mr. Fincher could easily have gone there with élan—for Daisy and Benjamin to be actual childhood sweethearts, they both go through a lot of living before briefly meeting "in the middle" for an idyll of romance.
To keep himself busy, Benjamin joins the crew of a tugboat and experiences a brief affair with a lonely diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton) as well as a dramatic World War II naval battle. After a while, it starts to feel a bit too Forrest-Gumpish, with our largely lackadaisical hero caught up in events and locales he doesn't completely fathom. Heck, Benjy's adopted mom Queenie even has a life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates-ish mantra, "You never know what's comin' for you."
Indeed, you never do. But in the case of this overlong film, after a while you wish that whatever was comin' would simply stop.
Don't get me wrong, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a finely crafted movie, with a more philosophical bent than any other big-budget fantasy of 2008. Still, it tries a little too hard to be profound without ever completely involving the emotions of the viewer. One sequence in the middle of the film illustrates this predilection. In order to demonstrate the capriciousness of life, Mr. Fincher guides us through an elaborate interconnected string of minor events in the lives of a handful of Parisian strangers. Taken together, these events conspire to bring poor Daisy to the calamitous end of her career as a prima ballerina. Still, one gets the impression that the main thing this handsomely constructed scene hoped to demonstrate was that the men who made this film are real thinkers.
Other aspects of the movie also made me irritable. These include the use of Queenie and her family as Noble Negroes—people who seem to have been put on the Earth for no other reason than to aid and comfort a singular little white boy. As marvelous as Ms. Henson is in her role, it is a part remarkably similar to the kind of stereotypic roles Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel spent their entire careers playing. We should be past that.
Perhaps there is a middle ground that Hollywood needs to seek out; something more serious than the wisecracking mayhem of a brutal superhero, but something a touch less self-important (and a wee bit shorter) than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
One movie that strikes a nice balance between schlock and the over-serious is a cinematic fable that also involves buttons—the stop-action animated story Coraline. Based on the young adult novel by Neil Gaiman, the movie was written for the screen and directed by one of the most talented animators working today, Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach).
Outside of moving the locale of the story from England to an equally damp Oregon, Selick is relatively faithful to Gaiman's tale of the young titular tween and her frightening and somewhat macabre adventures on the other side of a small bricked-over doorway in her new (yet very old) apartment house.
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is somewhat lonely and extremely bored and her work-at-home parents (Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman) are busy. Maddeningly busy. On deadline for the garden catalog they write for, they have little time to entertain (or even properly feed) their daughter. They encourage Coraline to entertain herself. This she does by finding her own Alician rabbit hole (or, more properly, mouse tunnel) into an alternate universe.
In this other world, she finds a home amazingly like her real apartment—only cleaner, brighter, and infinitely more fun. There she also finds her Other Mother (also voiced well by Ms. Hatcher) who appears to be the kind of perfect uber-hausfrau mom they just don't make anymore…and probably never did. Other Mother cooks delicious meals featuring everything from a literal gravy train to magical cakes. And she dotes on her daughter. There is an Other-Father, too. He makes a garden of delights in the form of a portrait of his daughter and sings songs about his adored daughter. At last, Coraline is the center of her world, and it feels awfully good.
At first the only odd thing about her Other Parents are their eyes—which have for some reason been replaced by shiny black buttons. That's easy to ignore until Other Mother starts demanding that Coraline replace her own eyes with buttons and begins to demonstrate a possessive and controlling streak. It starts out mildly sinister and goes downhill from there. Soon it becomes clear that the Other Mother is actually a hideous monster who has stolen the eyes and souls of children before, and who has now imprisoned Coraline's real parents as a means of keeping her in thrall.
Selick's animation is exquisite, and quite frightening at times. Too harrowing for small tykes, in fact. The kind of story Gaiman and Selick present is neither cheery nor cutesy. But it does offer enchantment, and a feisty heroine who faces down demons and saves herself and her parents, with a little help from a sardonic black cat (Keith David), and a shy goth neighbor boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.).
About that boy: He is not in the original book and is completely unnecessary to the story. It doesn't help that he looks like a slightly deranged Cabbage Patch Doll. But my complaint goes beyond young Wybie's looks. I can almost hear the executives at Laika (Nike's Phil Knight's new animation studio) and Focus Features—or whoever else it was that gave Henry Selick bad advice—tell the filmmaker that he needed to put a heroic boy in the story.
The mythology of Hollywood is that men won't go to see a "chick flick," and that little boys and their parents won't go to see a movie about a girl. I don't believe that for a minute. But that erroneous assumption needs to be tested by filmmakers brave enough to let a story with a female protagonist stay true to itself.
There are other ways in which Mr. Selick soft-pedaled a few of the more gruesome touches of Mr. Gaiman's marvelous story—no doubt to retain his PG rating and quell the concerns of overly protective parents. But, all in all, Selick not only honors his source material but furthers his own artistry to new heights.
In a limited number of theaters, Coraline was shown in a RealD 3D version that added to the fun. But even in good, old-fashioned 2D, this is a movie to cherish. The organic, hand-hewn nature of stop-motion animation is magic. And Mr. Selick and his small army of animators have turned bits of metal, silicone, and fabric into one of the bravest and most believable female heroes of recent memory.
Although decidedly different in both filmmaking technique and overall tone, both Benjamin Button and Coraline represent a very welcome change from the standard Hollywood sf fare of vengeful comic book cutouts and slasher sadists. Both titular heroes exist in worlds of fantasy that manage to say something valuable about everyday human life. Benjamin is a sympathetic (if overly passive) hero who learns to go with the flow of his "curious" life. But young Coraline Jones does him one better. Although often fearful, she rebels, explores, resists, and triumphs. She may not take home any Oscars, but I hope that generations of children of all ages will take her to heart.
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