Two of the holiday seasons most prestigious, Oscar-baiting movies seem informed by the resentment of aging and mortality summed up in Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.
In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays a Korean War vet who rages against the dying of the light with bigotry and the occasional firearm. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button turns our expectations for youth and senescence upside down through Brad Pitts age-regressing hero. But will he go gentle into that good, uh, morning?
The discrepancy between Benjamin Buttons outward age and his real maturity offers an intriguing if limited metaphor for the way peoples failing bodies dont match their ageless spirits. Benjamin Button director David Fincher also proves that state-of-the-art special effects can apparently do anything. Button offers astonishing images of Pitt as a child-sized senior citizen who gets taller and healthier every year. Gran Torino, on the other hand, proves thoroughly old fashioned in ways both good and ill, and only succeeds thanks to Eastwoods undimmed star power. The film, like Eastwoods character, resembles the kind of crotchety old timer with so much piss and vinegar, you make excuses for his bad manners.
Benjamin Button sprawls across a century of American history, beginning with the title characters birth as an infant crippled with the ailments of an octogenarian. His horrified father leaves him on the stoop of a New Orleans rest home at the end of World War I. Benjamin grows up surrounded by elderly people and simply assumes hes one of them. As a wizened teenager, he finds work, love and adventure on a Louisiana tugboat, in wintry Russia and in combat in the Pacific during WWII. An extended vignette with a diplomats wife (Tilda Swinton) comes closest to the cosmopolitan melancholy of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the original short story.
Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth adapted the screenplay and gives it numerous similarities to the Tom Hanks vehicle, particularly through Benjamins lifelong love for an inconstant woman, a dancer named Daisy (Cate Blanchett). In contrast to Forrest, Benjamin proves neither saintly nor innocent. He makes some irresponsible choices and gets to live out the dream of middle-aged men everywhere by having both experience and the looks of a young Brad Pitt.
The director of Seven and Fight Club, Fincher affirms his reputation as one of cinemas most obsessive stylists. He gives Button such a lived-in look that a sense of decay permeates even some of the loveliest moments. Fincher also relies on a ponderous framing device that crosscuts to a seemingly endless deathbed scene. For all the films potent visuals, some of Buttons ideas dont have the stamina to last its running time of well over two and a half hours.
Gran Torinos ideas amount to little more than Grumpy old men sure dont like these kids today. As retired autoworker and decorated Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, Eastwood fixes his face in a permanent scowl as he radiates contempt for his spoiled, disrespectful grandkids and the Hmong immigrants who now populate his neighborhood. When his young next door neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal Walts vintage Gran Torino as a gang initiation stunt, Walt drives off the gangbangers at gunpoint and, more reluctantly, takes Thao under his wing.
Gran Torinos themes and characterizations are about as obvious and unsubtle as a bad Stephen King adaptation. But theres something irresistible about the films middle section, when Walt gradually bonds with Thao over manual labor and discovers that he has more in common with the Hmong community than his own family. Gran Torino vacillates between critiquing vigilante tactics and endorsing them, but Eastwoods command of the screen ultimately prevails over the films clunky qualities. And, as opposed to Brad Pitts semi-magical makeover, Eastwoods face earned the crags and wrinkles that give it character.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 4 stars Directed by David Fincher. Stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett. Rated PG-13. Opens Thurs., Dec. 25. At area theaters.
Gran Torino 3 stars Directed by Clint Eastwood. Stars Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang. Rated R. Opens Thurs., Dec. 25. At area theaters.
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