Published November 25, 2008
How do you make an instant classic? Can you replicate “Forrest Gump” or at least the feel of it? Will a great trailer ignite enough Oscar buzz to overcome a merely good film’s realities?
These are the questions posed by “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which I saw yesterday afternoon and comes out on Christmas Day. David Fincher, known for movies like “Seven” and “Fight Club,” –each also starring Brad Pitt— was given the task of making a lump-in-your throat, cry like a baby film with Pitt as a man who ages backwards. Since people rarely well up during a Fincher movie for sentimental reasons they put “Forrest Gump” screenwriter Eric Roth on the project as protection.
Cate Blanchett co-stars, and the whole thing is supposedly based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Alas, this movie has about as much to do with the Fitzgerald story as Bela Lugosi would with “Twilight.” Except for the central conceit that Benjamin ages backwards, everything else is gone in this three hour epic. You can read the whole original story right here.
“Benjamin Button” is a lot of things: innovative, creative, technologically advanced. The trailer was so good that Oscar buzz started generating quickly. The result was almost like what happened to “Home for Purim” in the satire, “For Your Consideration.” Overnight, “Button” became the Oscar front runner.
Actually seeing it is a different story. Fincher has a lot of gadgets to play with. So Pitt’s early depiction of Benjamin, which takes up more than hour of the total three—that’s three—is a CGI process. Pitt’s head – made into that of an old man—is situated on a short, old man. The result is a synthetic character—a sort of geriatric Jar Jar Binks—matted into the movie.
But how else to do this? Benjamin is born a grotesquely wrinkled looking baby, but soon is about five-foot-five and an old man. “I’m seven years old,” he says at one birthday party. But he’s in his late 80s. You marvel at that Fincher and friends have accomplished this feat. Pitt’s head is a white haired balding orb set on top of a little person who is growing older by the hour. He’s Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” meeting Robert Redford, with a better wardrobe.
Strangely enough, there’s something very endearing about Pitt in this part of the movie. Setting aside the fact that he’s playing a CGI character, Pitt nearly succeeds in transcending the gimmick. He brings an unexpected pathos to Benjamin’s early life as he’s raised in a nursing home and watches the patients die off as he gets younger. (Almost what saves Pitt now as an actor is playing characters where his abnormal good looks aren’t a hindrance. See “Burn After Reading,” where’s he just great.)
But is it acting? Or is it a trick? The question maybe is sharpened because at the same time, thanks to Roth’s remaking of the Fitzgerald story. Fincher keeps cutting to modern times and the gifted Cate Blanchett lying in a hospital bed. Blanchett’s character is Benjamin Button’s former lover, who didn’t care that he suffered from this mysterious malady. She’s wearing the prosthetic makeup of old age too, but nothing about her has been digitized. She’s simply playing an old woman in the throes of death, and it’s very human.
All of this aging and de-aging is, by the way, set in New Orleans. Fitzgerald, for what it’s worth, had Benjamin raised by his father (the mother dies in childbirth) in Baltimore. In the movie, Benjamin is born in New Orleans. The mother dies, the father is so repulsed by a wizened looking baby that he throws him away and a local black girl (the terrific Taraji P. Henson) finds and raises him. The juxtaposed modern story is set against the imminent arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Why? Is it a metaphor? Or just because Brad Pitt is committed in real life to the rebuilding of New Orleans?
What’s easy about praising “Benjamin Button” – which will be a holiday hit, no doubt, and an awards contender— is all the technical stuff. It sure looks great, all the time. The make up department has done a bang up job. The production, the set, the lighting and costumes are all phenomenal. Two editors—Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall—have given the movie a dreamy feel that’s just right, and Alexandre Desplat’s score underpins the action with precision. There are also lovely supporting performances by Tilda Swinton, as Benjamin’s first love and Phyllis Somerville, as a tenant in the house where Benjamin grows up, as well as a very funny running gag about a man who keeps getting hit by lightning.
Just a literary note: Blanchett’s character, also invented by Roth, is named Daisy, I guess, as a wholly unnecessary nod to Fitzgerald’s most famous heroine, Daisy Buchanan. In the story, Benjamin’s fiancée is named Hildegarde Moncrief. It’s not like anyone’s going to be called Hildegarde in a 2008 movie, but still: Fitzgerald must be rolling in his grave at this point. But considering how badly he was treated in Hollywood when he arrived there in the mid-1930s, a little tweak now for the sake of box office receipts should seem like child’s play.
I told you last week about a terrific new Stephen Daldry film based on Bernhard Schlink’s best selling novel, “The Reader.” It turns out that Schlink had nothing to do with the filming since David Hare wrote the screenplay.
I wondered what Schlink thought of the final product, which is a moving romantic story but also a poignant one. The whole story hinges on Kate Winslet’s illiterate concentration camp guard: she is so embarrassed to admit she can’t read—after being read to by her young lover earlier in her life — that she takes full responsibility for the deaths of 300 women prisoners. If you haven’t read the book, the on-screen revelation is stunning.
Unlike a lot of authors, Schlink is happy. He is now saying he loves the film and will come to America to help promote it. He’s telling German interviewers that the cinematic changes Daldry and Hare made are fine, and he more than agrees with them. “The Reader” was an Oprah’s Book Club choice, so all Random House has to do is set up a signing for Schlink while he’s here, and there should be quite a line to meet him!
Harry Houdini—magician, spy, object of fascination—is coming to Broadway.
Last night at 20th Century Fox’s swellicious premiere of “Australia” at the Plaza Hotel, the talk was of the movie’s Hugh Jackman starring in the Broadway musical of Houdini’s life.
Danny Elfman, once the leader of pop group Oingo Boingo and now often a composer of movie scores, is writing the music. Kurt Andersen, a former magazine editor and current radio host here in New York, is said to be working on the script although no one’s seen anything yet.
The main thing is that Hugh is already working on magic routines. The show, when it materializes, would include Jackman replicating big Houdini tricks on stage. Hugh has already played a magician in the movie, “The Prestige,” so he’s up for it. Magician extraordinaire Ricky Jay is said to be giving him advice. At some point the producers may reach out to David Blaine and to Cirque du Soleil for help.
Hugh is right on his game these days, what with “Australia” about to hit America like a tsunami. He also has his “Wolverine” movie, and most likely an “X-Men 4.”
After the “Australia” premiere last night, Hugh worked The Plaza, which Fox took over as if it were the grand old days. The party stretched from the Palm Court all the way back through the front ballroom, up the stairs on to the mezzanine and into the second floor lobby. “Australia” director Baz Luhrmann, a classy gent, was there with wife Catherine Martin, the movie’s certain to be Oscar nominated costumer, as well as clutches of show biz types from Lauren Bacall and son Sam Robards to director Terry George to Olivia Newton-John, Moby, Regis and Joy Philbin, Broadway star Tovah Feldshuh, Penn Badgley and Blake Lively from “Gossip Girl,” Helena Christensen, Lydia Hearst Shaw (she’s Patty Hearst’s daughter), Alicia Witt, Kelsey and Camille Grammer, Katie Lee Joel, who just came in off the road while husband Billy continues to tour, and even Leonardo Di Caprio’s mom, Irmelin, who accepted many kudos from those of us who’ve already seen her son in “Revolutionary Road.”
Of course, there were plenty people associated with Fox, too, including Rupert and Wendi Murdoch, Jim Gianapolous, and Tom Rothman, all happy with not only “Australia” but Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” too, which comes from Fox Searchlight. If “Slumdog Millionaire” wins the Oscar for Best Picture—and I do think it’s very possible—you read it here first.
And did I mention Nicole Kidman, resplendent in black and gold, on the arm of husband Keith Urban? I’m hard pressed to think of a more beautiful movie star, harkening back to the golden era of films. She looked lovely, was able to walk tall alongside Keith, and talked to everyone.
Baz Luhrmann told me later, “With Hugh as her co-star, Nicole didn’t have to stand in a ditch or have her leading man stand on a box. They are well suited to each other.”
They sure are: “Australia” is like a throwback to big star movies of the 1960s, It’s fun, it’s serious, it’s epic, grand, and sweeping in its imagination. There’s a little too much CGI for my purposes, but I think young audiences today don’t mind that so much. They will like that for two and a half hours, “Australia” never cools down. If this were the 1960s, “Australia” would have been playing at the old UA Rivoli on Broadway, the place where “Sound of Music” and “Gone with the Wind” or “Cleopatra” or “The Grapes of Wrath” made their debuts.