The really poetic weirdness, though, comes in a pair of encounters with Michael Shannon as John, the deinstitutionalized son of the Wheelers’ realtor (Kathy Bates), who bonds with April over her alienation. Shannon is too large for the space—Frankenstein’s monster in an ill-fitting suit whose movements (post-electroshock) are out of joint, who sees malignancy and self-deceit wherever he looks. The conception is dated: By virtue of his mental illness, John—the nut who comes to dinner—perceives truth more clearly than the “sane” characters. (Yates doesn’t go so far as to suggest, like R. D. Laing, that madness is the true sanity, but they’re in the same ballpark.) Yet there’s nothing musty about Shannon’s performance. In Bug, he played (to the hilt) a delusional paranoiac, but his John has a different vibe—acid, wires humming, ripping off other peoples’ scabs to keep from ripping into his own. His scenes are sick-comic showstoppers, but not so hilarious you can’t see what he’s doing: torpedoing what’s left of the cruise ship.
The protagonist of the leisurely romantic fable The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is born old and wrinkled and ages backward, which means we spend an hour and a half waiting eagerly for Brad Pitt to look like Brad Pitt—i.e., superhumanly pretty—and the next hour and change thinking, Is that all there is? Not much goes on in that face, and Pitt’s resemblance to Robert Redford—pouchy cheeks, quizzical half-open mouth—tends to underscore what’s absent. Redford in his prime was alert and prickly, perpetually dissatisfied, whereas Pitt exudes complacency. As Benjamin, whose heavily symbolic malady has something to do with a supernatural clock designed by a grieving father to move in reverse, he gives you no hint what his character makes of the changes. He doesn’t bring out the tension between mind and body; he just stares ahead with sad eyes and lets his makeup do the acting. Pitt isn’t bad (his noncommittal performance might even appeal to some people, who can project on him what they will), but he lets opportunities slide that other, physically inventive performers would kill for.
The movie, directed by David Fincher, will probably be a hit anyway, because the gimmick (adapted by Eric Roth from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story) is fun to play around with in your head, and because it’s liberating to watch makeup gradually come off an actor instead of getting thicker (and phonier). Fitzgerald spent the later years of his life haunted by the profligacy of his early ones; to reverse time and recover his youthful body and stamina but retain his aged wisdom must have been a blessed pipe dream. Fincher is no humanist (his most vivid film is the clammy, clinical Se7en), and he refrains from milking the material for sentiment—which means the movie isn’t mawkish, but it isn’t especially vivid either. The light is yellowish and diffuse, the backdrops—the clock, a factory wall, the side of a ship—oversize. It’s a gentle expressionism, redolent of death without rattling bones.
Fitzgerald’s alter-ego finds his Zelda—called, aptly enough, Daisy—when she visits the convalescent home where his horrified father abandoned him. She grows up to be Cate Blanchett, whose face is uncannily ivory-smooth. When Daisy and Benjamin meet in the middle, both at the peak of their physical perfection, they’re like two Greek statues basking in each other’s radiance, albeit with dialogue that knocks them down a few pegs: “I was thinkin’ that nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” As they move toward death, one in the direction of infancy and dirty diapers and the other toward old age and osteoporosis, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button attains a level of quiet grace. It’s too bad that I can barely remember the movie after only a week. Nothing lasts, indeed.
The remake of that fine old fifties alien-invasion picture The Day the Earth Stood Still—a peacenik rejoinder to all the sci-fi movies in which E.T.’s stood in for soul-sapping Commies—comes to a standstill about an hour before the Earth does in the wilds of New Jersey. Trust me, folks, Jersey turns out to be the ultimate momentum killer: The main characters, among them “renowned scientist” Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) and an alien, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves), speed toward the Lincoln Tunnel—and yet, as in a bad dream, the tunnel seems to get farther and farther away. Just when we think they’re going to make it, they pull into a McDonald’s. Then they take a detour to talk philosophy with Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese), who lives deep in the Jersey woods. Meanwhile, the excellent-looking giant robot Gort, seemingly on the brink of going Godzilla on Manhattan, transforms into an unphotogenic swarm of CGI bugs and annihilates Giants Stadium. Atop their tanks in the city, members of various government forces look at their watches and noisily exhale.