The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
In Hollywood, there is a strong temptation to imitate success. The logic goes that if audiences loved that movie about an alcoholic former clown turned football coach last year, then they will absolutely adore a film about an alcoholic former circus strongman turned soccer mom this year. Sometimes this mimicry extends to films which haven’t even been released yet, with one studio hearing about another’s ‘hot project’ and then scrambling to put their own together, especially for the summer season. This is how we are treated to simultaneous blockbusters about volcanoes, asteroids and other such instant classics. Frankly, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a team of psychics employed to scan Michael Bay’s dreams every night on the off chance that he turns yet another one of his pyrotechnic REM-impulses into the next must-see summer flick.
The biggest tradeoff to imitation is the fact that originality is sacrificed. There are honestly only so many variations of the whole ‘hot lava is coming, we need to leave’ storyline. When it comes to tugging at heartstrings, the palette is even more limited. Hollywood has essentially boiled down dramatic tragedy into a few rigidly defined plot arcs. Want to make audiences cry? Give a kid a disease, celebrate the mentally handicapped, kill a beloved pet or create circumstances that forbid two star-crossed lovers from ever finding true happiness. Or you could just give Jean-Claude Van Damme a soliloquy.
It is no surprise, then, that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while making use of the seemingly unique gimmick of a reverse-aging Brad Pitt (although at no time in the film does he reverse-inseminate Angelina Jolie) is nothing more than a re-telling of Forest Gump minus the overachieving short bus rider. The story itself is a fairly standard fable of a man’s life, albeit with the caveat that he is born an old man, but the novelty of this angle is largely negated by the ponderous, wheezy narrating from a dying woman in a hospital bed passing her final hours with her only daughter. Constantly returning to hear some hag croak out inane commentary on her own life story is far more distracting than Gump sitting on a park bench blandly offering strangers lumps of chocolate and folksy wisdom like Sarah Palin with a brush cut.
This crutch largely saps the life out of what could have been an interesting examination of the role aging plays in humanity’s relationship to the world. Instead, we are left with a series of vignettes that could have largely been taken from the standard cinematic tear-jerker playbook, along with the morality play that maybe the fountain of eternal – or at least chronologically-challenged – youth is not something to be aspired to at all. You could probably have replaced the main character with a vampire and achieved the same effect, with the welcome addition of copious amounts of bloodshed, sexy PVC costumes and possibly a lot more nudity. I guess no one had the time to break Wesley Snipes out of debtor’s prison and make that a reality.
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