The first half of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button overflows with wonder and a flirtatious sense of mystery, keyed by visuals that can only be described as fabulous. And then the second half lets it all slip away. All the really big themes — life, death, love, memory, loyalty, and destiny — are on display, adapted from one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's lesser known short stories. That's more of a literary footnote than a guiding star for this high-gloss Hollywood prestige production, starring Brad Pitt as a man cursed to be born old and to grow younger, with Cate Blanchett as the elusive love of his life.
From a hospital bed in which the Blanchett character, Daisy, lies dying, we travel in flashback to a dreamlike early-20th-century New Orleans. There's an eccentric clockmaker, the railroad station clock that runs backward, a mother who expires at childbirth, a bitterly cruel father, and unwanted little Benjamin. He ends up, wrinkled skin and all, appropriately enough in an old folks' home — it could have been a bordello, but no — raised by Queenie the caretaker (Taraji P. Henson), her man Tizzy (Oakland product Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), and assorted eccentric seniors. Early on, Benjamin discovers two things: his fascination with a girl named Daisy, and that somehow his body grows stronger and younger with each passing day.
Benjamin's reverse-speed life fills with characters and adventures. He visits that whorehouse, then takes a job with a Popeye-style Hibernian tugboat skipper (Jared Harris) and ships out for the Russian arctic port of Murmansk, where his brief affair with an English diplomat's wife (the aptly cast Tilda Swinton) further convinces him of the power of the female. He goes to war. All this is shot by cinematographer Claudio Miranda and directed by David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club) in mythic tones of amazement, as if this little old man is discovering the world before he learns about himself. Benjamin does everything backward. Other fictions have played with the "reversal of time" device. It seldom rises above the level of a gimmick. That's one of the central problems with Benjamin Button, but not its only one.
When he finally re-encounters Daisy she has grown into long-limbed, graceful Blanchett and he is in his mellow early middle-age, with more virility to come, not less. They're finally ready to make whoopee. This is the point at which the Twilight Zone-style scenario hits a rough patch, made more perilous by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord's screen story. Roth was one of the prime culprits behind Forrest Gump and sure enough, Benjamin tours Gumpville — Teddy Roosevelt, sinking a U-boat, etc. Up until the overly lengthy love interlude, we're treated to the unique world view of a man maturing mentally and emotionally, at odds with his body. But then the tragic romance kicks in, and drags on. In the logic of the story, Benjamin and Daisy will never be able, at least physically, to grow old together. They'll be the original ships passing in the night, connecting briefly with maximum pathos because they're on diverging roads.
Pitt and Blanchett make an appealing screen couple. The period in which Benjamin and Daisy coincide goes by in a golden haze, but they're doomed to slip past each other, and to end up an old woman cuddling the infant who once was her lover. So the '50s and '60s in Paris and the US represent the romantic payoff. That payoff turns out to be anticlimactic, and the story peters out into a puzzling 21st-century coda involving Hurricane Katrina — more Gump gravy. The gimmick finally lets everybody down. No wonder so many screenwriters wrestled with it for so long. And no wonder this is the one of the best half-movies of the year.
Mickey Rourke has been a bit of a time bandit himself. The 52-year-old actor burned a hole in the screen in Body Heat (1981), Diner (1982), and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) with his James-Dean-crossed-with-urban-hipster looks and sullen mannerisms, then embarked on his own long, slow burnout. Notoriously hard to work with and creatively naughty, Rourke eventually became a walking punch line — check out writer Joe Queenan's "Mickey Rourke for a Day" (YouTube.com/watch?v=15sKotvEXZI). Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) is one of the worst movies of all time.
Rourke's "lost years" would make a thrilling documentary subject for someone like Abel Ferrara. The former welterweight youth boxer dumped Hollywood for professional prize fighting, got his kisser rearranged in the ring, and underwent extensive plastic surgery. He scuffled but never stopped getting film parts: Buffalo '66, the Get Carter remake, Masked and Anonymous with Bob Dylan, etc. When Frank Miller's 2003 Sin City showcased him as a grotesque goon, audiences wondered if that could be his real punim.
The Wrestler is Rourke's official comeback piece, the story of a washed-up pro wrestler with a daughter he can't relate to, a stripper girlfriend, and a body that's quitting on him. Randy "The Ram" Robinson lives in a trailer outside Nowheresville, New Jersey and moonlights on a loading dock and a deli counter in between bloody, two-bit National Guard armory bouts ("Bring the cheap heat, bro") with guys like the Necro Butcher, who shoots his opponents with a staple gun. It's a perfect role for Rourke and he crushes it to the mat.
Director Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel equip Randy the Ram with, in the words of Merle Haggard, everything he needs to drive him crazy. He has a crush on Cassidy, a pole dancer at the local nudie bar (Marisa Tomei). Tomei looks terrific (that's not a body double) and maintains her dignity in a thankless role — how many sluts with a heart of gold have we seen cozying up to over-the-hill dudes? He inhales pills and creams by the bucketful. His estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood of The Life Before Her Eyes and Thirteen) is understandably wary of her neglectful dad. His only other friends are wrestlers.
It doesn't matter even a little that The Wrestler has direct parallels to Rourke's own checkered career. If we were completely unaware of his past — many movie audiences won't and shouldn't care anything about it — the film would read like a straight documentary, the chronicle of a steroid-filled, fake-suntanned, depleted muscle man who can't seem to give up the limelight, no matter how sleazy. And that documentary would be powerful. The Rourke legend makes it all the more sensational — that's probably why Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for the film and gave it to the producers for free, or why Rowdy Roddy Piper bestowed his seal of approval. The Mick is back.
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