The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Revolutionary Road, and Other Lumps of Coal
By Fernando F. Croce

Curious, indeed. In a year when Gus Van Sant emulated Milos Forman's biopics (Milk) and Darren Aronofsky channeled the Dardenne brothers (The Wrestler), David Fincher has decided to turn himself into Frank Darabont for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The gimmick in this very long green mile is that, as a guy who enters life as the 2,000-year-old man and ages backwards, Brad Pitt is first dusted and latexed to resemble Abe Vigota's ballsack and then digitally smoothed out to the hunk who got Thelma (or was it Louise?) wet back in 1991. As his beloved, Cate Blanchett also vacillates between old-age pancake and CG-rejuvenation that seems to send her back to Middle-earth. The stodgy, Gumpian narrative (scripted by Eric Roth, naturally) sprawls from 1918 to the Katrina disasters, and encompasses minstrelsy mammas, WWII clashes, Beatles montages and, all too briefly, the great Tilda Swinton. Fastidious student of Lang that he is, Fincher lends this hodgepodge a suggestion of geometry -- overlapping timelines "meeting in the middle" and ending "in diapers" -- but it's always a wreck when a misanthrope tries to squeeze out sentiment. With the Resnais of Je t'aime, je t'aime at the wheel, this could have been a profoundly affecting rumination on being and dying and impermanence; with Fincher excreting goo over digital canvases, it's a mammoth chunk of marzipan. Following the flawed but daring Zodiac, the film shows the director on a reverse-evolving path of his own. Who knew that F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story (a bitter joke on Shaw's quip about youth being wasted on the young, really) would end up on the screen as a three-hour Botox ad?

*

Eleven years after Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reteam for Revolutionary Road, a different sort of leaky vessel. More than such suburbs-scalding scribes as John Cheever or Tom Perrotta, Richard Yates got close to the haunting desperation of Flaubert in his great 1961 novel, which Sam Mendes here unhappily films like a daytime soap's Emmy submission. DiCaprio and Winslet play numbed 1950s bourgies, given one scene of youthful romance before being made to spit nails at each other Martha & George style. He's a bored member of the New York rat race, she's the frozen-haired keeper of their Connecticut manor, both are so loaded with Eisenhower-era frustration that it's only a matter of time before a Howdy Doody reference is made. Desperate to escape with a bit of soul left, Winslet makes a proposition: Sell everything and move to Paris, where she'll play the supportive muse so that DiCaprio can "find himself." Their landlady's shock treatment-rattled son (Michael Shannon, again excellent) approves their plan ("Plenty of people are on to emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the helplessness"), but it all turns out to be part of the couple's corroding self-delusion -- frustration is brought to the surface only to have to be tucked back in, with tragic results. This is familiar turf to Mendes, though Revolutionary Road is less smirky than American Beauty: His visualization of conflict (a roadside squabble at night punctuated by passing autos, a backseat tryst set off by nearby neon) are for the most part organic, the actors hit their marks with skill, everything is polished to a tee. But where's the true pain Yates detailed so vividly? Compared to Chereau's Gabrielle, this is the kind of middlebrow self-consciousness that can be tidily seen and packaged as "dark" by the folks at DreamWorks.

*

Yesterday's news are tomorrow's theater. Peter Morgan has made a cottage industry out of investigating the behind-the-scenes exploits of historical figures (Queen Elizabeth II, Idi Amin, the Boleyns and the Tudors), even though the results (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, The Other Boleyn Girl) are, no matter how rewarded at the Oscars, about as provocative as PR campaigns. Frost/Nixon, an adaptation of his own acclaimed play, wheels out America's favorite stooped scoundrel for a reasonably enjoyable ping-pong match that undeservedly fancies itself a history lesson. Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) circa 1977 is an exiled ogre, bathed in Watergate disgrace despite a presidential pardon; David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a starfucking British interviewer in need of a media comeback. It's the infamous versus the famous-for-being-famous when the two sit in front of the cameras, and the expected puff piece becomes a tug o' war for an admittance of guilt. "Sometimes stepping out of your safety zone is a good thing," Frost declares. Not a wise thing, however, if you're Ron Howard. To be fair, his directing is fleeter than in his other movies, working with close, quick, often handheld shots to record Langella's deft blend of slippery sourpuss and shaken dinosaur. But Howard can't, as someone mentions in the film, distinguish between a performer and a journalist -- even the best moment, when Nixon comes back to unctuous life in the first interview and Frost in a flash recognizes the dexterity of the bullshitter sitting across from him, is soiled by Howard's need to fillet everything for audiences, with blabby talking heads spelling things out about this "most unlikely of white knights." Claims of relevance to the expiring Bush regime are wishful thinking, good luck getting anyone there to own up to their crimes. A movie about the Palin/Couric interview might have legs, though. But hurry, Tina Fey can't keep talking like that forever.

*

More Oscar grabbing. After isolating himself from the rest of us mortals in I Am Legend and disdaining his own superpowers in Hancock, Will Smith ascends to Heaven by judging who's worthy of his flesh in Seven Pounds. It's hard to describe this paean to soulful stalking without spoiling its secret (or without listing more random objects than a Seth MacFarlane brainstorm), but here it goes: Smith is an ex-rich guy who "did something really bad once" and is now going around as the country's nicest IRS agent, picking the people who will benefit from a certain morbid decision. Chief among them is Rosario Dawson, given a purplish paleness to justify lines like "You know, I used to be hot." She's very touching, but there's little room on the screen for another person when Smith gives the creepiest version yet of the Magical Negro routine (he has more chemistry with the pulsating jellyfish he keeps in a tank in a fleapit motel -- hey, I warned about this getting random). Gabriele Muccino, who earlier directed Smith in the similarly overbearing The Pursuit of Happyness, gluts superstar sanctimoniousness with clumsy flashbacks, flashforwards, and an ending that is, to use a scholarly term, icky. Hearts and eyes are up for grabs during the for-your-consideration season, which means the brain gets tossed in the bin.


Reviewed December 26, 2008.

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