Last week, I went to see the new, critically acclaimed film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." This movie has been touted as one of the best of the year. A.O. Scott of the New York Times labeled the film "a lush, romantic hothouse bloom … (Button) sighs with longing and simmers with intrigue." Rex Reed of the New York Observer goes even further: "a monumental achievement … one of the greatest films ever made."
All of which begs the question: What are these people smoking?
Button is a beautifully made, deeply flawed, dismally uninvolving, utterly incoherent mess of a movie. There's a reason for that: the screenwriter is Eric Roth, the man responsible for rolls and rolls of overlong, uninspired drudgery, including "Forrest Gump," "Munich," "Ali," "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Postman."
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For the benefit of Mr. Roth – and for the benefit of those critics who seem to have forgotten how good movies are made – here are the top eight rules good movies must follow.
- Answer Your Central Question. The question in Button is: How does aging backwards affect a man? The answer seems to be: the same way aging forwards affects everyone else. That's boring. How about showing us something interesting?
- Don't Ignore Obvious Conflicts. In "Button," Benjamin Button is white. He is raised by an adoptive black mother and father in 1920s and '30s New Orleans. Yet there is no racial conflict. There's another major issue: Those around Button treat him as essentially normal. No one calls a doctor or asks a scientist or even treats him as a freak. Why not?
- Make Your Main Character Compelling. If we're going to follow a character for three hours, he'd better be compelling. A medical condition isn't enough to sustain interest in a character. Is there anything more boring in life than listening to someone list their medical problems? The same holds true in the movies. "Button" relies on the fact that Button is aging backwards. But he is a passive participant in his own life. He's Adrian Brody from "The Pianist" with a reverse case of progeria. Zzzzzz.
- Develop Your Characters. Button doesn't develop as a character. That's shocking. For an overlong movie about a man traveling backward through life, you'd expect that when Button looks 20, he'd be acting 60. Instead, he's tooling around the country on a motorcycle at 50 looking 30, taking a sex vacation with his girlfriend at age 45 looking 35, and visiting India to find himself at 60 looking 20. He acts how he looks, not how old he is. That's bad scriptwriting.
- Create A Narrative, Not a Collection of Short Stories. "Button," like "Gump," is a series of short stories connected tenuously by Button's presence. It's as episodic as a season of "Friends." The movie feels like it was written by a 10-year-old with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: "Hey, let's have a scene with a submarine. But now let's do a scene in India. Or how about let's have an old opera singer die?"
- Be Consistent. If your story is about a man aging backwards – if he's getting younger as time goes on – he can't have dementia when he enters childhood. His brain is also getting younger.
- No Irrelevancies. Consistent use of non sequiturs isn't clever, it's annoying. In "Button," there's a character who randomly pops up to announce that when he was younger, he was hit by lightning seven times. Each of these little announcements is accompanied by old film of him being hit by lightning. The audience laughs, naturally – it's completely out of left field. But this is a stupid laugh. It's the equivalent of Adam Sandler suddenly appearing and shouting "poop!" in the middle of "Gallipoli."
- Do Something Unpredictable. If you can predict the end of a movie within five minutes of its opening, something is wrong. The writer's job is to make you doubt yourself – or at least, if you know where the story is going, the writer's job is to give an unpredictable interpretation of predictable events.
"Button" could have been a great movie. It could have had a coherent plot, a meaningful message, or character development. Instead, "Button" is an exercise in self-indulgent, self-celebratory faux profundity, tied together with a big budget and neat effects. Film critics love this sort of incomprehensible muddle of a film; they mistake the inscrutable for the ineffable. They make the same mistake with politics and with life; they mistake lack of clarity for nuance. In doing so, they mistake cow pie for rice pudding.
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