Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rachel Getting Married and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Don't get me wrong, I hate people that make proclamations and insinuations on films they haven't seen. It's right on top of the worst things a person who talks or writes about films can do. No, I have not seen Slumdog Millionare and really shouldn't say anything bad about it. There's every (slim) chance it really could be the best movie of 2008. But be it bad advertisement or whatever reason, it's low on my list of films I need to catch up on. High on that list is Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married and David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Rachel Getting Married doesn't focus so much on Rachel. Like Margot at the Wedding, the sister of the bride shows up and demands the spotlight. The similarities though, pretty much end there. Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) is getting a weekend pass from her rehab facility to reunite with her family for the weekend wedding cerimony. The reason(s) why Kym is staying at a rehab facility make for some of the great revelations of the movie. Kym is happy to announce early and often to anyone and everyone that she's drinking tonic water and giving out appologies while everyone else (except a friend of the husband and unexpected fellow NA attendee) is drinking wine and giving out blessings to the happy couple. Kym's need for attention is mostly her desire for pity but also her need to show how much her battle with her past consumes her.

Anne Hathaway is just as great as you've no doubt heard. She deserves her accidentanly pre-announced Golden Globe tonight. The film gives her character these great reveals, what was this car crash about? Who is Ethan? We discover these answers through her and as the film goes on, and as revealing as those answers are, she continues to walk the line between sympathetic and pathetic -- never giving over to the temptation of shmaltz.

If Jonathan Demme has a autuer touch it's that in every one of his films, in one way or another, America is being represented in its multi-cultural best. There's definitely some shots, like the character talking directly into the camera, that you can spot every once in a while, but his take on America is very much his own. This melting pot view is apparent in my favorite movies of his (Something Wild and Married to the Mob) but never so much so as in Rachel Getting Married. Rachel, a thuroughly white woman, is getting married to Sidney, a black man played by Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of TV on the Radio. He plays a musician in the film and this interracial marriage couldn't be less of an issue to any character or plot point. In fact if anything it's being celebrated. The ceremony is an multi-cultural influx and perhaps the most badass wedding ceremony ever -- with Neil Young being recited, Robyn Hitchock noncalantly performing, Brazillian drumming, and a killer DJ doing the recpetion. This perfect syncronicity of everything America coming together is downright too perfect but yet I couldn't help but be overjoyed to the point of tears. This is what it's like when everything in America clicks into place. No doubt that there will be issues -- recovering addicts, divorced parents and sibling rivalries -- but these things are all universal issues.

I have this notion that Jonathan Demme has made it his life's work to film America with such a race-blind eye so that maybe it might catch on and people will see what America is really all about. No other director from the states is doing what Demme does nowadays. I salute him and the wonderful movie he made. It definitely would have been mentioned in the 2008 roundup.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button however has a few too many flaws to overcome, try as it might. I can't help but take into consideration the film's scope and it's lofty themes. I can tip my hat to David Fincher for his ambition but unfortunaltely the movie fails to connect for a number of reasons.

The movie takes it's name from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that can be read here. I've read it numerous times while at work when things slow down. It's a perfect story for a lunch break or waiting for the clock to hit 5pm. But aside from the title and a few charater names, the movie is it's own unique beast. The Fitzgerald story deals with the birth of a fully grown old man who ages into a child. At close to 3 hours the film tells the tale of a baby born with arthritis, bad eyes and ears and at death's door who grows into an adult and then back into a baby. Different stories. But I can understand. I mean, the reason that Fitzgerald's story has taken as long to get to the big screen has been due to the peculiarity of the source matierial and how best to translate it to the screen. I'm usually not one to complain about the details lost in translation but in this case, it does bother me a bit.

One important flaw is that the movie tries to make itself a fable while at the same time teather it soundly to the real world -- even giving it the structure of being told by a woman on her death bed whlie hurricane Katrina is pounding away outside. We're told Benjamin's birth is tied to a clock that counts backward (by a blind clockmaker as a gesture to try and bring the WW1 troops back home) -- not in the FSF story in case you were wondering -- but makes his birth as real as possible. In the story he's sitting in the delivery room complaining of inapropriate clothes and already world weary. Specifically, the child in the story grew young in every sense, born with an old man's mind. Whereas the child in the movie grows young only in appearance, born with a normal child's mind, and grows from a wrinkly baby into a normal looking child with Alzheimer's. Yes, it's a completely different story. But it's not one without some interesting themes of it's own -- why it couldn't have been released under a different name and left the Benjamin Button story for someone else to take a more literal crack at it, I don't know.

So we have a wrinkly baby that grows up in a retirement home as a small man in a wheelchair with an 80 year old body (and a CGI'd Brad Pitt face) on a seven year old fame who plays with toy soldiers (unlike the man-child in the story who didn't approve of the toy soldiers an instead prefered flipping through Encyclopiea Brittanica). He meets Daisey, to be played by Cate Blanchet, and they both get along because they're the only children in an old-folks home. Their relationship will of course span generations and test the limits of love.

The CGI work is practically flawless, but at times it can prevent you from really connecting with the film. And while there are fantastic moments in the film, this isn't the kind of movie where a handful of fantastic moments can save it from occasional tedium. For one it's nearly 3 hours long, for another it's story isn't exactly unpredicatble. Its themes of love vs. mortality are told in an original and entertaining way but aren't exactly as impressive as the small moments of a young Benjamin quickly going throught the begining and end of his first sexual romance (with a once again great Tilda Swinton) and encountering deadly action on the seas during WW2. The supporting players are great -- as is Pitt, but the actors aren't given more than these small moments to really excell in. It doesn't build to much more than what you expect. But to the film's credit, even though you can see where the story of Benjamin's life is going to lead to, it still packs an emotional punch. How much of that hit is earned is a good question.

Being that the film comes from the writer of Forrest Gump, comparison's are inevitable. Even if it were two different writers, they'd be forthcoming. We watch a lifetime through the eyes of a rather simple person. Benjamin, like Forrest, isn't a deep man. He has simple desires and much of his good fortune falls in his lap. The film even has a version of the "box of chocolates" saying in "you never know what's comin' for ya." Benjamin Button to it's credit has a good deal more to say about the heartbreak and futility of life than Gump did. The love story between Benjamin and Daisey is more potent and oddly more realisic. In fact, the story of a backwards aging person is far more realistic than Gump. But what cuts to the bone the most are the notes of quiet amazement for the best and worst life has to offer, sometimes in the same scene. When Benjamin takes his dying father to watch the sunrise over the ocean rather than die in his sleep, I've never quite come as close to smelling the salt air in a theater before.

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