Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On the Noggin

Smart People, joining The Visitor and Starting Out in the Evening as a string of recent movies about unhappy college professors, has a pleasingly low-key vibe. Whereas those other two pictures started out as simple character studies before demanding to be Taken Seriously, Smart People remains content with its modest ambitions to the end, which is both a strength and a failing.

Ditto the (mis)casting of Dennis Quaid (now, hard to believe, in his mid-fifties) as the misanthropic Carnegie Mellon lit professor Lawrence Weatherhold. It's hard to buy Quaid as a pretentious author, English department schemer, and widower, disengaged from his students as well as his family; even behind the beard and gruff demeanor, his inner warmth shines through. On the other hand, the actor's natural charisma makes more credible than usual the obligatory romance with a younger woman, a former student turned physician played by Sarah Jessica Parker. (Who, granted, isn't that much younger, though Mark Poirier's screenplay seems to suggest otherwise.) Lawrence meets Parker's Dr. Hartigan following a mild seizure after hitting his head that lands him in the ER. Unable to drive for a few weeks, he then enlists the help of his freeloading half-brother Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) to play chauffeur. Chuck, however, is more intent on loosening up Lawrence's intellectually ambitious teen daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page).

It's easy to see where this is going: Lawrence learns to love again and be a better teacher, brother and father. Yet Smart People avoids the usual melodramatic pitfalls along this journey -- even a third-act surprise pregnancy is devoid of hysterics. The most enjoyable parts of the movie are when Lawrence's daughter advises him on how to play office politics and become a literary shark. (It's Vanessa who suggests that Lawrence make a bid to become department chair -- despite being head of the search committee -- and she also offers the amusingly rude title of his new book: You Can't Read!) At first I groaned at Page's interpretation of her role as Juno redux. But she develops a nice rapport with Church -- whose Chuck gently corrupts her with pot and alcohol -- and becomes, in the throes of a crush, touchingly vulnerable.

Page and Church are essentially one-note actors who find a fresh tempo in each other's presence; and Parker is the strongest she's been in years, refusing to be "the girl" of the story, creating a believable human being instead. I wish Noam Murro's aim-and-shoot direction gave his cast as much as Poirier's nuanced script. His set-ups, perfunctory at best, botch at least one potentially classic scene, when Lawrence attempts to steal his car back from a towing company. This would be easier to forgive if it wasn't in the shadow of Wonder Boys, another Pittsburgh-based, halls-of-academe comedy starring Michael Douglas (in the most richly imaginative portrait of a college professor I've ever seen, and one of my favorite performances ever), elegantly directed by Curtis Hanson and photographed with the rapturous eye of Dante Spinotti: rarely has a gritty urban landscape appeared more enchanted. Visually, Wonder Boys fully conveyed the creative energies and frustrations of its characters, whereas Smart People suffers from a disconnect. I enjoyed spending time with these characters; they're attractive, witty, and don't shout too much. I'm just not sure what -- or who -- drives them.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Snooze Show

While announcing this year's Oscar nominees only two days after a long-anticipated Presidential Inauguration may have been an unwise choice (the first time in years that I was caught unawares), the picks themselves proved to be so dull and blah that few have even mustered enough energy to complain. Last year, the annual "I've never heard of that movie!" argument seemed pretty silly, with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men leading what was for once a halfway worthy pack. This year there's not even a clear audience favorite like the godawful Juno and its Woman Of Letters Diablo Cody (currently polluting airwaves with her scripts for The United States of Tara) to raise any naysayer's ire. I thought Ben Button was muddled and Slumdog wafer-thin, but both films have just enough virtues that I'm unable to hate either one. I'm not the biggest fan of The Dark Knight or WALL-E either, nor have I seen Gran Torino, but any of those titles would have offered more interest than Hollywood's increasingly isolated selections.

My tenuous predictions (don't use these in your party pool) and random observations are as follows.

Benjamin Button will win Best Picture and David Fincher Best Director; I'm just not sold on the it-is-written certainty of Slumdog Millionaire, though I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the latter won the bigger awards while Button took the technical achievements. Milk and Gus Van Sant could even pull an upset, though Hollywood's closeted anti-gay demographic should never be underestimated.

I'm probably wrong, but I don't see Sean Penn winning this time either; there may well be a Mickey Rourke upset.

In past years, Kate Winslet was pissed off she didn't win an Oscar; following this year's overindulgence at the Golden Globes, she may be outraged at not taking home two. I'm a little surprised her nom was for The Reader and not Revolutionary Road, but regardless I think this is finally Her Year.

The supporting categories: Heath Ledger and Penelope Cruz. Milk will win original screenplay and Slumdog adapted. I sense an Eric Roth backlash for Button regardless of the movie's overall chances.

I disliked Rachel Getting Married pretty intensely, yet I thought Anne Hathaway was deserving. I disliked Happy-Go-Lucky too, yet I'm pleased Sally Hawkins got snubbed. Would have been pleased with an Eddie Marsan surprise supporting nom, however.

Funny how the Oscars can make one sick of an actor one has always liked. Philip Seymour Hoffman: I'm tired of seeing the guy's name.

I was tired of Werner Herzog even before his first nomination ever (for Best Documentary). The man is a narcissistic bore.

Frankly, the longer I write this, the less certain I am about Benjamin Button.

The Dark Knight's action chop-suey for Best Editing....really?

Some of the most fun I've had with Oscar picks is a high-success ratio of guessing a winning title at random. This year I'm going with Auf der Strecke as the winner for Best Short Film. I've never heard of that movie!

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Finch Who Stole Christmas (and Possibly the Oscars Too)

Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy's maiden voyage over at The House -- a comprehensive (to put it mildly) debate on the career of David Fincher -- is an odd piece of contemporary film criticism: endlessly engaging, without a whiff of pretension or vitriol, and written in easily understandable words. That's so crazy it just might work.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lonely Guys*

Ricky Gervais, the funniest man in England and possibly America too, is also a singular dramatic talent. It's essential to realize that both voices are really the same. On the original British Office, I found it hard to look at him, not because he was bad but rather his David Brent was so thoroughly entwined with humor and pathos that it was hard to know precisely how to react without burying one's head beneath sofa pillows. (Truth be told, I found this to be a flaw of the show: that his underlings would respond so blankly to his hijinks.) In his first starring movie vehicle, the charming romantic comedy Ghost Town, Gervais plays Bertram Pincus D.D.S. (a name W.C. Fields would have approved of), a misanthropic dentist who undergoes a routine operation that leads to a near-death experience. This, in turn, enables him to see a Manhattan crowded with ghosts, all of whom take to pestering this selfish, hermetically sealed man to fulfill their last wishes.

No, it didn't sound good to me either -- which is why, like everyone else, I opted to not see it in theaters. Had I done so, I may have revised my oft-voiced gripe that Hollywood no longer knows how to make romcoms. David Koepp certainly does. Redeeming his Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull screenplay, Koepp, as both writer-director here, fashions a loving update of those Preston Sturges/Howard Hawks screwball affairs, where a pair of so-mismatched-they're-made-for-each other protagonists fall for each other (sorta) in the midst of a manic ensemble. As the other half of the romantic equation, Tea Leoni demonstrates once again why she was born in the wrong era. In the 30s, she'd have competed with Stanwyck, Russell and Lombard for roles such the one in Ghost Town. She plays Gwen, a paleontologist (now there's a Sturgian profession!) and grieving widow who lives in Bertram's apartment complex. Gwen is mourning the loss of her louse of a husband Frank (Greg Kinnear), who wants to use Dr. P's abilities to break off her marriage to another man.

All this may sound predictable, but Koepp throws a few changeup pitches into his script that neatly undercut expectations. And while his visual sense is understatedly lovely, Koepp's strongest talent is the good sense to stay out of his actors' way. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Gervais nimbly portrays a seemingly irredeemable jerk who undergoes a profound transformation without losing the edge that made him endearing in the first place. Ever since Flirting with Disaster (a rare example of a great contemporary screwball farce), Leoni has had the comic chops; what is new in Ghost Town is her emotional resonance. Gwen is the kind of woman drawn to men she thinks she can fix, which makes Bertram the wrong kind of man. Yet in the wondrous final scene -- a moment as surprising yet sublimely perfect as the end of Before Sunset -- he shows her, and us, what it really means to change.

It speaks volumes that a pair of comic actors in a gentle and goofy movie about ghosts come off as more touching and authentic than nearly all the master thespians up for awards for their Important Films this season. An exception is the remarkable character actor Richard Jenkins, who now proves he can portray a college professor with such conviction you'd think he'd been coasting on tenure for the past twenty years. He's the best thing by far in The Visitor, an otherwise disappointing film about Professor Walter Vale (Jenkins, of course) who befriends a pair of illegal immigrants while attending a conference in New York City. We get early on that Walter is quite the stiff, as unsympathetic to his piano teachers (he's gone through four) as he is to a student turning in a late paper. It seems implausible that he'd feel enough sympathy to let the Syrian/Senegalese couple unwittingly holed up in his New York apartment to continue to stay there; but for at least a little while Jenkins' customary flashes of mad genius -- as when he begins to let his body boogie to the Syrian musician's African drum -- almost make it work.

Writer-director Thomas McCarthy's last film, The Station Agent, was an agreeably ramshackle, low-key comedy about a trio of mismatched friends. The Visitor starts out along similar lines but takes an ill-advised turn into the political when one of the immigrants gets picked up by the authorities. McCarthy wants to show the effects of our political climate on decent human beings just trying to live their lives, but he surrounds his regular folk with so many stereotypes (glowering black cops, stupid white women and mincing gays abound) that the atmosphere renders his message false. With the noble intention of wanting to show the virtues of foreign cultures, McCarthy makes the mistake of denigrating his own. Like most filmmakers out to make a statement, he ends up saying nothing at all.

*Not what you're thinking, random Google searchers.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

High Comedy

Right before the holidays, as a Christmas present to myself, I bought Season 1 of Weeds. Then I made it an early birthday and picked up Season 2. I haven't yet seen Seasons 3 or 4, but the quality of the first two years of this go-for-broke Showtime comedy series reinforces what I've been saying for some time now: television is officially superior to movies.

I know: heresy. But consider the following titles to emerge over the last ten years or so. From HBO: Deadwood; The Wire; The Sopranos. On Showtime: Weeds; Dexter. AMC: Mad Men. FX: The Shield; The Riches; Rescue Me. Sci-Fi: Battlestar Galactica. USA: Monk. NBC: 30 Rock; The Office. ABC: Lost. Undoubtedly viewers could add more favorites to the list. I'm a bigger fan of some of these shows more than others, but I've seen enough of all of them to know that the writing, directing and acting on a typical episode is better than what you'll see on an average motion picture.

Movie comedy is in an especially wretched state. I've bemoaned ad nauseam on this blog that Hollywood cinema, once the gold standard of farce (mixing American vaudeville with elements of British theater), no longer understands the first thing about it. While the worst bar none have been the Julia Roberts/Meg Ryan/Sandra Bullock romcoms, which pretend to celebrate female independence only to espouse that what these ladies really need is A Man, the best comedies to have emerged over the last few decades are either dry-as-toast Indie affairs or overwrought raunch-fests. (Anthony Lane and I remain virtually yet unapologetically alone that one of the best American comedies of the decade is Dodgeball.) Many of the latter have sprung from the Judd Apatow comedy empire -- not incidentally a byproduct of Apatow's fine failed TV series Freaks and Geeks -- and I've liked quite a few of them....yes, even Walk Hard. Yet there's a family-values, be-a-better-person recurring theme to his films that sucks a bit of the air out of them. Part of the fun in classic screwball affairs like The Lady Eve or Bringing Up Baby was that the characters never listened, never learned; you knew they'd still be driving each other crazy after the story was over.

That sensation has been retained on occasion by the best episodes of 30 Rock. But the freedom of cable programming has taken Weeds to a higher level. It's not just the premise -- newly widowed mother Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) turns to marijuana distribution to eke out a living in the affluent California suburb of Agrestic -- that makes Weeds (at least its first two seasons) an updated, risque, TV version of those classic screwball films. Its writers, led by creator Jenji Kohan, grasp that one of the key elements of farce is fast and funny dialogue. A memorable scene from the first season features a pair of likable jerkballs, Doug and Andy (Justin Kirk and Kevin Nealon), having a semi-coherent, pot-fueled debate in the living room about the precise name of a certain part of the male anatomy. Like a scene from a stage play, the quick-witted maid Lupita (Renee Victor) then enters the room.

Andy: Hey, Lupita, what do you call that thing between the dick and the asshole?
Lupita: (pointing) The coffee table.

In the first season, Kohan and her writing team convey the joy of idle bullshitting better than anyone this side of Tarantino. And in the second season, they maintained a balance between agreeably rambling talk, startling zingers and sight gags (one episode has a brilliant visual shock involving a dog, a hamburger, and a pair of toes), and ratcheting up the tension emanating from Nancy's rise in the biz. The start of S1 had more wayward elements -- a touch of soap-opera, a pinch of artificial American Beauty gloss -- that sometimes bumped elbows with the show's more comedic aspects. By the final episode, however, when Nancy unwittingly hooked up with an enigmatic DEA agent (Martin Donovan, whose handsomely blank features were put to better use than any role since his unlicensed shrink in Lawrence Kasdan's underrated gem Mumford), Weeds hit a stride that continued throughout S2, when the show's twisted comic logic pulled all the disparate plot strands giddily together like tentacles.

(Additional props must be given the decision to offer a different cover version of Malvina Reynolds' "Little Boxes" for the opening credits of each episode of the second season. The variations -- follow the link and you can watch them all -- underscore the show's evolving theme of the tension in the ticky-tacky suburbs between the unyielding status quo and the possibility for change.)

Weeds also gives its cast -- arguably the best comic ensemble on TV -- the creative freedom to shine. It starts with Parker, always a good, unusual actress whose line readings are always a beat faster or slower than you expect. As Nancy, she's required to fill in a lot of blanks: we're never fully told why she opts to sell pot (not being a smoker herself), but Parker's expressive brown peepers suggest that her chosen profession has unleashed an inveterate danger-seeker. Nancy is at her best when the noose tightens around her (and, boy, are the writers wizards at noose-tightening), and it's exhilarating watching her think on her feet. When another character threatens Nancy by waving an incriminating videotape in her face, the speed with which Parker casually plucks the tape, drops it on the floor and stomps on it will have you reeling with pleasure.

It's no exaggeration to say that Parker resembles Paul Newman in her ability to inspire the actors around her to raise their game. If, like me, you assumed that Kevin Nealon was a D-list alum from Saturday Night Live, prepare to be wowed by his funny, pathos-laced portrayal of a corrupt certified accountant who's happy only when he's stoned. Elizabeth Perkins employs her acid wit to devastating effect as the hypocritical yet desperately lonely Celia. (An amazing scene from the second season features Celia seizing Nancy, who has kept her in the dark about her business, and screaming, "Be my fucking friend!") The underappreciated Romany Malco (from Knocked Up) brings his uncontainable energy to Nancy's fellow entrepreneur and potential love interest Conrad, while the wonderful Maulik Pancholy (from 30 Rock) brings his impeccable low-key timing to the role of Nancy's distributor. There's also a spectacularly unnerving performance from Page Kennedy as the passive-aggressive drug kingpin U-Turn, whose hilariously circular arguments with a slow-witted henchman (Fatso-Fasano -- that's the actor's name) are a profane version of a classic 30s radio show.

The heart of Weeds is its depiction of the Botwin family -- behind the comic surrealism, the most believable family unit on television. Yet there's never too much heart. Nancy's protective affection for her sons Silas (played as a magnificent teen douchebag by Hunter Parish) and Shane (Alexander Gould, who started a little shaky but has improved dramatically) is leavened by hair-pulling frustration: she loves them unconditionally, but that won't stop her from wielding an axe to smash through a door to a locked bedroom. And the lively presence of Justin Kirk's gadabout brother-in-law indicates that lessons never will be learned, creates the sense that the characters are still driving each other crazy offscreen. I've heard mixed reviews about the quality of Seasons 3 and 4, but for now the series has left a message far more heartening than anything in the movies: We're fucked up, but we're okay.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Yearn After Reading

The end of the holidays and my nose back to the proverbial grindstone spells a regrettable return to a paucity of weekday posts, though the weekends still got game. With this missive, I'm hoping to start what will become a more or less midweek ritual of linking to other worthwhile pieces 'round Blogtown and Netsville whilst my fair readers count the minutes by like a 90s-era Meg Ryan heroine wondering why that bastard hasn't called. Hope you enjoy:

Christopher Hitchens on Salman Rushdie. The ever provocative, occasionally lucid Hitch is in full possession of his faculties with this penetrating Vanity Fair piece marking the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Satanic Verses and the far-reaching consequences of the Ayatollah's fatwa on his friend.

Kelefa Sanneh's New Yorker profile on singer-songwriter-actor Will Oldham (dubbed "Beardy McGruntsalot" by a witty chap at the IMDb). I wasn't a big fan of Oldham's acting chops in Old Joy, but I'm interested in Kelly Reichardt's follow-up Wendy and Lucy, in which Oldham not only appears but wrote the music.

Last, I haven't followed the Slate Movie Club since David Edelstein's farewell bash soured by a cuckoo Armond White and a disgraceful Charles Taylor. This year's gathering, however, has been a fitfully amusing chick fest, in which Taylor's wife Stephanie Zacharek meets her alter ego Lisa Schwarzbaum. Finally. Face to Face. Or at least keyboard to keyboard.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Scumbag Millionaires

The irritating yet essential documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) feels even more topical now than on its original release three years ago. Want to trace the origins of our country's financial free-fall? No better example than what occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s behind the walls of a Houston-based gas and electricity titan, a beacon of integrity whose executives were surreptitiously cooking the books, jerking around California's power supply, and absconding with millions. Bethany McLean, the Fortune magazine writer who unwittingly stumbled on the scandal and co-authored (with Peter Elkind) the book on which this movie is based, says in an early interview that people assume that Enron "is a story about numbers, when actually it's a story about people." The Smartest Guys in the Room casts more than a few jaundiced glances at "Kenny Boy" Lay, company chairman and buddy of the Bushes, but unexpectedly it's CEO Jeffrey Skilling who provides the hollow soul at the movie's center.

Skilling is described (in rather dime-store psychology terms) as a person with dueling personas. While the public figure was a bespectacled, soft-spoken, cool-headed leader, the private man was a pathological liar and inveterate risk-taker whose corrupt policies became more outrageous the wider the cracks grew in the company's visage. Yet the film convincingly pinpoints Enron's destiny as sealed back in 1996 with a condition to Skilling's initial employment (rubber-stamped by Arthur Andersen) called "mark-to-market" accounting, whereby estimates of earnings were transformed into actualities. True believers in a deregulated marketplace, Lay, Skilling and their cronies -- namely chief financial officer Andrew Fastow, whose intricate Ponzi schemes concealed Enron's financial losses -- are rendered all the more frightening for the fierce convictions behind their fraud.

A few elements of The Smartest Guys in the Room already feel dated, namely the post-reelection swipes at our retiring president. Like many current filmmakers -- documentarians and dramatists alike -- Alex Gibney appears not to grasp why liberals are loathed in middle America, and he undercuts the message by overplaying the kind of potshots guaranteed to alienate an audience. The astonishing third act of the movie features audiotape of company brokers brazenly ordering the shutdown of power plants in California that led to the state's infamous "rolling blackouts" in 2001. (One gleefully shouts, "Burn, baby, burn!" -- in response to news of approaching wildfires -- by way of anticipating the buying back of stock for cheaper than it was sold.) But Gibney then trots out deposed Governor Gray Davis, whose speculation -- that the blackouts were part of a master plan between Enron and the White House that precipitated his recall and Schwarzenegger's ascent -- is insinuated as fact. I was more convinced by another interviewee, who had urged the governor to summon the National Guard and retake the plants by force, that Davis's passivity was part of the problem.

Another maddening attribute among modern documentary filmmakers is the inability to trust their own facts. When somebody mentions Skilling's insecure machismo, Gibney cuts to "X-Treme Sports" stock footage of bikers doing flips near a canyon. When it is revealed that Lu Pi, a mysterious Enron exec who made off with $350 mil and became the second largest landowner in Colorado, had a fetish for strippers, in come a few garish visuals on that subject. (It doesn't help that Pi is depicted as a stereotypical enigmatic Asian villain, a corporate Mr. Moto.) I suppose these segues are designed to entertain, but instead they take you out of the story, which is compelling enough on its own terms, though perhaps not Hollywood's.

Gibney's film closes with the indictments of Skilling, Lay and Fastow, and makes a cogent case for a wider net of criminality by Arthur Andersen and fellow enablers in a system that bankrupted a corporate entity, tarnished other businesses and left tens of thousands of workers across the spectrum unemployed. More attention should have been given to the victims of Enron's schemes. (At times it's a little unclear who suffered, as at least one talking head -- a former mid-level executive -- is shown still living in apparent comfort.) The Smartest Guys in the Room does its damndest to be "about people," yet what sticks with me is a more concrete understanding of what is meant by a postmodern economy. "Artists, sportsmen, surgeons, plumbers, and the rest of us have secret voices of doubt," writes John Lanchester, "but if you go to work with money, and make money, you can be proved right in the most inhumanly pure way. This is why people who have succeeded in the world of money tend to have such a high opinion of themselves." The bigger they are, of course, the harder they fall -- small consolation, as current events demonstrate, when the greedy bastards land on the rest of us.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Blowin' in the Wind

Finally caught The Happening, poor Night's latest debacle. (On reserve at the library -- didn't think I'd actually pay to see it, did you?) Resisting the urge to pile on the filmmaker I despise the most, or to be contrarian just for the hell of it. (Okay, maybe a little contrarian: there's something almost quaintly appealing about watching Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel flee from plants and air in the midst of our annual season of high-toned Oscar gloss.) Mostly, I just wanted an excuse to use the above title. Nothing to see here. Carry on....

Friday, January 2, 2009

Running Out the Clock

Probably it's best to talk now about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, before it wins this year's Best Picture and the inevitable backlash begins. By far the worst of Pauline Kael's influences on film criticism has been the notion that critics have a moral imperative to inform their readers that a particular movie isn't as good as they think it is -- indeed, that a critic can somehow divine a movie's nefarious agenda, and we should heed the warning Before It's Too Late. I've been guilty of this to a degree from time to time myself (Juno, The Sixth Sense, Indiana Jones and the Middle Finger to the Fans). But I've never felt as conflicted as Keith Uhlich when he confessed that he "distrusted" The Wrestler until a colleague assuaged his suspicions by explaining that Aronofsky was actually following the contrived tropes of professional wrestling in creating an old-fashioned feel-good tale. (An interpretation that I'd bet would bewilder the filmmaker.) Do we really need contorted justifications to enjoy a relatively conventional movie? I don't completely trust Benjamin Button, but that's largely irrelevant to whether or not I liked it.

I mention this because some who otherwise would be bodyslamming Benjamin Button as vigorously as they did Forrest Gump are instead bestowing laurels due to their film-geek appreciation for director David Fincher. "(W)hereas Roth's prior, Robert Zemeckis-helmed Oscar darling was as mushy as a box of chocolates melted by the midday sun," Nick Schager posits, "Fincher's is a far more reserved portrait of everlasting love, a work whose aspirations for grandeur are, more often than not, mitigated by a controlled aesthetic and emotional rigor that situates the film in a comfortable...." More big words, you get the idea. But the comparison is interesting because I had the opposite reaction. For me, Forrest Gump still holds up -- backlash bedamned -- as a canny poker-faced satire of a turbulent era in American history (Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction lost out at the Oscars that year, reportedly told Zemeckis he thought Gump was misunderstood); whereas only a day after I saw it, the virtues of Benjamin Button are beginning to fade.

While fans of the film would like to concoct the impression that its qualities are due entirely to Fincher, the screenplay by the fashionably reviled Eric Roth has its pluses too. (It's based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.) In Gump (as well as his fine script for Michael Mann's The Insider), Roth's theme was the impact that ordinary individuals have on events bigger than themselves; in Button, he's fascinated by the ravages of time on human beings. This is established by the latter film's prologue, set in 1918 New Orleans, where a blind clockmaker devastated by the death of his son in the First World War builds a giant train-station clock that runs backwards with the hope that it could change the direction of time. (There's a haunting image of charging soldiers back-stepping in slow-motion.) The clockmaker's objective is unsuccessful, but his creation does unwittingly affect the titular character, who is born an old man and ages into a youth over the course of the film.

Roth has an uncommon knack for magical realism (more so than Fincher, who seems uneasy at times with the material), and he has a gift for uproarious running gags, such as a man who keeps getting struck by lightning. It's his talent for summing up a character or situation in two or three lines that gets him into trouble. The depiction of Benjamin's adoptive mother, an African-American named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), isn't quite as cringeworthy as Forrest Gump's crashing a "Black Panther Party," but it's uncomfortably close to the kind of "Magic Negro" stereotype that Spike Lee rightly rails against. There's no discomfiting social context to the situation, lest we think the Jim Crow South was anything less than blacks and whites living in harmony in the polyglot culture of Benjamin's home. It's a soothing yet troubling atmosphere that gets the movie off to a rocky start.

Benjamin, of course, is played by Brad Pitt; and if he's not as expressive or resourceful an actor as Tom Hanks (I'm still haunted by the latter's reaction in Gump to the news that he's the father of Jenny's son), he does a fine job underplaying the character as a normal person caught in an extraordinary situation. Being natural is a thespian achievement that's never given enough credit. Accolades usually go to actors like Cate Blanchett, who is more adept at mannered, larger-than-life icons like the Virgin Queen or Bob Dylan than "normal" people, which is how Daisy -- her character in Button -- first appears to be. Blanchett isn't as down-to-earth as Robin Wright Penn, who gave the unsung great performance in Forrest Gump; but it helps that Daisy is something of a mannered artist herself. A dancer whose ambitions are undercut by her wayward demeanor, Daisy is an unattainable female archetype who becomes more real and vulnerable as the film goes along. Pitt and Blanchett don't exactly have chemistry (I never saw Babel, so I can't form an opinion based on that), but when Benjamin and Daisy finally consummate their love in their forties, their personalities mesh in unexpected ways.

Yet an even better partner for our passively handsome leading man comes from another tall pale British actress with a flair for idiosyncrasy. I don't recall Tilda Swinton interacting with Pitt in the Coens' Burn After Reading, but she gooses him to life in Benjamin Button as the lonely wife of an English spy whom Benjamin meets in Soviet Russia. Benjamin, who has become a member of a journeying tugboat crew -- and at this point reversing into comfortable middle-age -- holes up in a hotel where Swinton's Elizabeth is staying. As the two begin a tentative affair during their regular evening encounters in the hotel lobby, the movie ceases being bloated Oscar Bait and blossoms into a classic short story.

This lovely interval is the strongest break with the Gump template to which Fincher and Roth otherwise cling a little too closely. Both tales are told via flashbacks by a central character and climax with a "surprise" paternal revelation; both have colorful supporting characters -- Lieutenant Dan in the former film, Captain Mike (Jared Harris, son of the late, volatile Richard) in this one -- who mentor the protagonist; both are filled with platitudes about living life to the fullest that are equal parts trite and moving. The key difference is Gump was anchored by an unreliable narrator: we knew the tragic circumstances behind the events that Forrest participated in; and it was his guilelessness that made everything that happened to him touching and funny. Benjamin, in contrast, is uncomplicated simply because that's how he chooses to be. If he has any opinions, flaws or unruly passions, we're not privy to them.

Benjamin Button has some indelible passages, and credit should be paid to Fincher's as-always impeccable visual schema. I didn't come away with any clear indication of how he feels about the material (Zodiac and Seven seem closer to his actual worldview). Yet before the civic duty of our cultural Neighborhood Watch prompts dire warnings of the toxins this dangerous film is releasing to an unsuspecting public enjoying a night out at the movies, I think we can all trust this: the only agenda that most motion pictures have is to make money or win awards. Both, if they're channeling the Zeitgeist, of which Fincher's film seems poised to do regardless of its shortcomings. The worst I can say about Benjamin Button is that it's a little bogus, a tad bland. That's disappointing, but not a crime.