REVIEWS: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
One would expect the adaptation of a short story penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald detailing the fantastical nature of a man whom is born elderly and gradually de-ages to infancy to be directed by somebody the likes of Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis. The concept seems to scream out for one of those two gentlemen to adapt it, particularly considering the route towards life-affirming lessons and heartbreak it would inevitably hit once it got to Hollywood.
It’s a little surprising, then, that David Fincer ("Fight Club") opted instead to meet the challenge. And meet it he does, by taking a simple and preachy premise and giving it enough layers to hide the hokiness of the story’s concept and message. What’s more surprising is that the film comes across more like a Zemeckis or Spielberg film. And, perhaps most surprising of all, it works amazingly well.
(image: Pitt as "Benjamin Button."
What’s funny is that he looked
better than I did at 17.)
Of course one can owe a large debt of gratitude to Brad Pitt, an actor who is only now achieving the recognition as a legitimate thespian and domineering screen presence after so many years of being pigeon-holed as a pretty boy and/or gaining more fame as Angelina Jolie’s arm candy (which speaks more to her star power than any perceived shortcomings he may have had in the celebrity realm). But Pitt, besides his physical presence and ability to convey emotion through faraway glances, also lends a great deal of gravity and humanity to the character of Benjamin Button. As an actor, he steps into a ludicrous fantasy and makes it something more than believable: here we have a man who reverse ages, and yet we not only don’t question how this is happening, we also don’t bother asking ourselves how all the supporting characters so easily accept the circumstances of this man’s condition.
It’s fair to give credit as well to screenwriter Eric Roth, who cemented himself through the screen adaptation of "Forrest Gump" (for which he deserved an Oscar for adapting Winston Groom’s dreck of a novel into something that watchable) and went on to write some of the best screenplays of the past decade ("Munich," "The Insider"). But even Roth attimes gets trapped in the fantasy of Button and becomes a little too wistful and lost in his own design. Which is only a minor complaint, and whatever weaknesses the film may have are easily overcome through the dark and sharp edges of Fincher’s odd sense of humor and Pitt’s undeniable talents.
All that said, the most "Curious" aspect of this film occurred once it was over, and I experienced something I hadn’t experienced at a movie theater since I was a child – people were crying. I won’t pretend that I see more movies in theaters than any other person, and I’m sure there’s been plenty of cheap melodramas over the years that have dammed off a couple rivers on the cheeks of a few lonely housewives. But it was a new and wonderful experience for me to view a movie that, while it did not have quite that affect on me, could ellicit that raw of a reaction out of so many people. It’s that, more than any performance or filmmaking technique employed by Fincer or master cinematographer Claudio Miranda, that makes this film exceptional.
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman
If you aren’t familiar with the theatrical play – of which this film is a direct and exact adaptation – then you probably aren’t familiar with John Patrick Shanley. That’s because his only other directing credit was, believe it or not, "Joe Versus the Volcano." Shanley, instead, has focused his craft on the written verse, and in 2005 opened "Doubt" on Broadway to rave reviews and heaps of adulation and awards. Three years later, Shanley is given the opportunity to do what every writer (secretly or openly) wishes s/he had the opportunity to do – direct the film adaptation of his/her own Pulitzer Prize winning play with complete control over every aspect of its execution.
Unfortunately that brings us to this film’s glaring shortcoming: it is very much a filmed play. Sure, the camera’s not positioned from twenty to thirty feet away, nor is the blocking in place to ensure that the characters are facing upstage at all times. However, the film’s pacing and tone are very much in keeping with a staged production, to the point where the sort of humor that normally is done to keep a live audience focused and on its toes instead comes across on-camera as somewhat distracting and out of character for what the film’s tone is supposed to be. It’s one of those subtle nuances that is easy to overlook when adapting a play to film, but difficult to ignore once the finished product is presented.
(image: Streep as "Sister Aloysius"
– or trying to figure out what on Earth
prompted her to do "Mamma Mia!")
And so, as a film, it falls slightly short. But as a story and as a vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman and especially Meryl Streep, it’s exceptional. Perhaps the very same weaknesses this film possesses are simultaneously its strengths: if we’re to accept at face value that Shanley wanted to remain as faithful to his source material as possible to the point of not really contributing anything to the genre of film through this adaptation, then perhaps it was for the greater good of parlaying the story of the crisis of the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 20th century and the shaking of the foundations of faith from its hesitancy to embrace the present and change with the times.
And what can I say of a cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep that wouldn’t come across as cliche pandering and hacky, pathetically faithful adoration? Nothing, so I won’t.
If we’re going to measure "Doubt" on its technical merits as a film, it’s going to fall short. However, I’m more than willing to forego that level of critique and take it as a story that more people need to be exposed to. With that goal in mind, this film succeeds more than admirably, and you’re really only going to be bothered if you’re an unpleasant nitpicker. Like me.