The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchette, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson\
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Ben Vang, Ahney Her
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon
Directed by Sam Mendes
Here are three well-made, well-acted and well-received films that also have another thing in common — they appeal to a particular generation.
Sure, movies are supposed to be universal entertainment, but that does not mean they’re universally appreciated. Your grandma may detest Transformers as much as she exalts High School Musical 3, even though both involve young people falling in love while facing challenges, parents, authority figures and their own fears. Or it may just be that elderly Grandma can’t stand the noise and frenzy of Transformers but swoons for those wholesome singing and dancing kids from East High.
Appeal can be more than just a matter of taste or age. Some films can speak to certain generations — generations that have experienced the world through a certain lens, through a certain set of values, forces and experiences that were in the culture and helped shape their outlook and perspective. And no generational experience has been more marked and defining than the experience of the Baby Boom generation (those born between 1945 and 1964).
President Barak Obama is a member of this generation, and that’s one reason why an abundance of articles and stories have been written about it lately. That, and the fact that this populous cohort is starting to retire, causing headaches for the solvency of the Social Security system, the availability and affordability of health care, and so on.
Of the three films, Revolutionary Road, which is about living in suburbia and working in the city in the 1950s, is perhaps most obviously directed at the Boomers. Many Boomers grew up in this type of home — complete with a distant workaholic father and a naggingly unfulfilled homemaking mother fixated on the manners and appearances of upward mobility and the accumulation of wealth and luxury.
The two quarrelsome parents are played with existentially tormented gusto by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Oddly, their children (the Boomers themselves) are rarely glimpsed. That’s because this film is really about the sacrifices the Boomers’ parents made — the sorts of struggles that the Boomers weren’t privy to as kids, although they had an inkling that something was amiss (as any survivor of suburbia in the ’60s and ’70s can attest). The absence of children also might be explained by a desire on the part of the filmmaker not to expose Boomer kids in the audience to what could only be described as a special, vicarious form of child abuse — the vicious shouting matches between their symbolic parents.
The film sharply evokes the mood of lost opportunities and the unmooring of family life that the Boomer generation experienced. That the Boomers themselves now have to make sacrifices in these troubled economic times makes that evocation all the more gut-wrenching.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also focuses on the parents of the Boomers, but, given the Boomers’ notorious selfishness, I’ll bet they think the film is about them. And that won’t be too hard, given that the film is essentially a remake of Forrest Gump — a film that encapsulated the full arc of Baby Boomer zeitgeist up to that time.
Button, wispily based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, like Gump, offers a protagonist with a disability who witnesses large events around him and falls in love with a woman who flits in and out of his life at regular intervals. We also get a narrator who reports on the actions in flashback, parents who worry that their child may possess his or her affliction, special effects that transform the protagonist’s age and presence at events, and a main character who is brought up by a single mother, takes to the sea to work, goes to war and engages in sexual dalliances.
Since Gump was so popular with Boomers, it’s likely this one will be, too. It is luscious to look at, with striking images of New Orleans, a maritime battle between a submarine and a tugboat, and beautiful people. It also invokes that aching twinge Boomers feel of dreams unfulfilled and of being carried away on the large currents of time. And, like Gump, the film contains a gimmick. In Gump, that was magically placing Gump at locations and with people significant to the Boomer era. Here, the gimmick is having the character age in reverse — the ultimate Boomer fantasy.
Finally, there is Gran Torino, which is also about Boomer parents. In addition to the presence of its director and star Clint Eastwood — a Hollywood icon who Boomers grew up watching and secretly fanaticizing as a Boomer father — it possesses the added Boomer elements, similar to Revolutionary Road and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, of distant, authoritative parents, manicured lawns, tool-filled garages and an affinity for powerful muscle cars built in Detroit. Ah, the good ole days. And, since this is an Eastwood film, we get to rekindle our love for Dirty Harry — evoking the collective Boomer fantasy that the criminal element can be vanquished by getting its proverbial ass kicked.
This is an unadorned film. Its narrative is stripped to its essence, offering very little flourish, polish or panache. Eastwood plays an irascible, blue-collar, elderly man whose wife dies. He is left to confront the kids he does not respect and Asian next-door neighbors his bigotry finds mysterious and repugnant. There are the usual humorous Eastwood-esque clashes with his kids and neighbors — and with a nosy young priest who tries to get him to confession, as his wife had instructed. And there are the usual tense clashes with street gangs that escalate in typical Eastwood fashion.
The film is pleasing and satisfying. Boomers can lovingly reflect on the familiar Eastwood formula that they grew up with. It’s essentially Boomer comfort film food. And the awkward, yet touching, way Eastwood mentors the young misfit Asian boy next door can give Boomers a sense of the need to realize that their numbers are shrinking and that other ethnicities are rising and worth respecting and accommodating.
It’s not always about the Boomers after all, although these films may have them thinking that it is.
Doug Young is The Statesman’s outstanding film critic. He also works for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall as an environmental policy adviser.