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Maybe this movie's curious emptiness has to do precisely with the actors' appeal, their matinee-scale beauty and charisma. Yates' novel used implied interior monologue—what Flaubert called "free indirect style"—to indicate the vast gulf between how April and Frank thought of themselves (as thwarted bohemians) and what they really were (fearful middle-aged suburbanites). Without that layer of built-in irony, the Wheelers' protestations that they're too good for the life they're trapped in seem straightforwardly true, and what should be a bleak social satire instead reads as a banal melodrama. When April miserably informs her husband that, for all their aspirations, "We're just like everybody else," the audience reflexively protests: "No, you're not! You're Kate and Leo! He gave his life for you at the end of Titanic,for God's sake!" The couple's on-screen history is part of what gives the Wheelers their undeniable chemistry (even if most of Frank and April's chemistry is used to formulate the vitriol they hurl at one another). But that same history—Leo proclaiming himself "king of the world"! Kate's arms outstretched at the prow!—is a part of what keeps us on the outside of the Wheelers' story, unable to find the small-time schemers in the faces of these larger-than-life stars.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button(Warner Bros.), adapted by David Fincher from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, is the lengthiest and most ambitious of all the Christmas releases, yet it's the one I have the least to say about. Two hours and 55 minutes is a long time to sustain a mood of puckish whimsy, especially when the frame-story narrator is a dying old woman (Cate Blanchett in age makeup) lying immobilized on a hospital bed. Fincher is a technical magician: He can convincingly (digitally?) create the illusion that Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is aging in reverse; that he—and we—are caught in the middle of a World War II naval battle; and that Cate Blanchett, a 39-year-old mother of three, is an airborne teenage ballerina. But Fincher's magic can't transform him from the coldly dispassionate misanthropist of Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac into a sentimental humanist, and it can't turn Brad Pitt into the kind of actor who can carry a movie like this.
Don't get me wrong: Pitt's great in character roles, as a comic grotesque or an unrepentant scoundrel. (See Burn After Reading or, for that matter, Fight Club.) But as a passive, introspective leading man like Benjamin, he's just dull. There's not enough going on behind those deep-blue peepers to justify a Forrest Gump-esque jaunt through 80-plus years of American history (though it is amusing to watch that familiar chiseled Pitt face emerge from layers of excellent age makeup). The melancholy final scenes have Blanchett, as Benjamin's true love, Daisy, caring for her once-husband as he gradually regresses to babyhood and she approaches old age. This vision of two lives criss-crossing as they ebb finally achieves a profundity the rest of the movie strains for, but it comes about two hours and 25 minutes too late.
Slate V: Critics on Marley and Me, Valkyrie, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button