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Deck the halls with scheming Nazis—and withered, arthritic babies and seething suburban housewives. Those are the grim bundles waiting under the Hollywood tree this recessional holiday season. It's somehow appropriate to the economic moment that the three big Christmas-week releases— Valkyrie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Revolutionary Road—are about grand failures of one kind or another. There's the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in Valkyrie, the failure of the human body (even a backward-aging one) to conquer time in Button, and the Titanic-sized failure of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's marriage in Revolutionary Road.
It might be argued that all three movies not only depict failure but enact it. Valkyrie, the first film out of United Artists Studios since Tom Cruise became the studio's sole head last summer, has been something of a cursed production, dogged by rumors of reshoots and perpetually changing release dates. Its director, Bryan Singer, talks big, but he has to be anxious about the film's reception after the universally shrugged-at Superman Returns (2006). And, as Slate's Stephen Metcalf suggests in his glorious reading of Tom Cruise-as-market-bubble, the notion of the stolidly perky Cruise playing a one-eyed, one-handed would-be Hitler assassin is just inherently funny.
Given all these obstacles, Valkyrie comes off surprisingly well. The first half-hour or so does proffer some unintended chuckles as the script strains unnecessarily to provide its hero, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise), with background, character, and motivation. Motivation?? We don't need to learn about the source of Stauffenberg's war wounds (he loses an eye and a hand in a North African bombing raid) or his love for his wife (Carice van Houten) to understand that he wants to kill Hitler. We get it. On with the Hitler-killing!
Once Singer dispenses with the introductory pathos and gets to the nuts and bolts of Stauffenberg's plan, Valkyrie becomes an admirably modest and compact suspense thriller. Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators in the German army (played by the plummily British likes of Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Terence Stamp) arrange to smuggle an explosive-laden briefcase into a meeting with the chancellor. They also secretly make changes to a succession plan Hitler has had drawn up in the event of his death (occasioning one of the film's few intentionally funny lines: "Now all you have to do is get Hitler to sign it"). For a thriller with a thoroughly foreordained outcome, Valkyrie does a pretty good job at making the viewer's palms sweat. Especially so soon after the tedious pieties of The Reader, I'm not sure I want more from my Nazi holiday viewing than that.
Revolutionary Road(Dreamworks), Sam Mendes' adaptation of the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, hasn't a hair out of place. It's a textbook example of a well-crafted movie, beautifully shot, impeccably acted, and structured like an elegant three-act play. (You can almost imagine the red velvet curtain descending at the end of each act.) So why does the movie feel as pleasantly deadening as the midcentury Connecticut suburb where it takes place? It certainly isn't Kate's or Leo's fault. Winslet is, as ever, divine as the repressed April Wheeler, who gave up her dreams of becoming an actress to marry Frank (DiCaprio). And while DiCaprio lacks Winslet's emotional reach as an actor, he's perfectly cast as the cocky, self-deluded Frank, who commutes to an office job he hates in order to support their two children. Bored stiff by their emotionally sterile life, April suggests they shake things up by moving the whole family to Paris. This prospect briefly rekindles the Wheelers' marriage, until … well, let's just say the last scene isn't a happy family picnic atop the Eiffel Tower.
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