The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) ****
January 12, 2009
tags: Brad Pitt, David Fincher, Elle Fanning, Frank Marshall, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Julia Ormond, Kathleen Kennedy, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
written by: Eric Roth & Robin Swicord
produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall & Ray Stark
directed by: David Fincher
rated PG-13 (for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking)
2 hrs. 47 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2008
DVD/Bluray release date: May 5, 2009
David Fincher’s latest epic film has been dismissed by critics as “Forrest Gump” in reverse and depending on your perspective that’s either right on the money or a lazy dismissive condemnation. I can see why people are claiming the similarities to “Gump”, it has an endearing protagonist at its core, who embarks on a journey that spans decades (minus all the pop culture insertions). But while “Gump” has a certain amount of saccharine forced upon the viewer, here is a film with a slow-burn sentiment to its story. It’s an odyssey that combines love and fantasy, offering the viewer an open door of enticement rather than a elbow-nudge into a spinning turnstile of emotion. Ironically, screenwriter Eric Roth also wrote “Gump” and here he takes a very short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and makes into a nearly three-hour opus.
Trying to describe this film requires much more that just saying that the title character is born a man-child and grows into a child-man. Indeed, it is all that and so much. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born a wrinkly old baby, the farthest thing from cute. Rather than quickly expiring as everyone expects, he continues to get bigger and stronger and soon it becomes apparent he’s aging backwards. How does this work? It’s called digital face painting. Artists take Pitt’s aged face and slap it on several different teeny actors and then when Pitt gets older, yet looks younger (I know, it’s kinda confusing), digital effects come into play to make him look like the stud from “Thelma and Louise”. At no time is this technique ever distracting in fact it comes across just as odd and unsettling as it does for the characters around Benjamin.
I’m not sure what time period Fitzgerald’s short started but the film gets Benjamin’s story started in New Orleans circa 1918 at the end of World War I. A horrified father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) is about to end the life of the abomination his wife died giving birth to but winds up leaving the baby at the doorstep of a nursing home. A young couple working at the home, Queenie (the terrific Taraji P. Henson) and Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), find the baby and much to Tizzy’s confusion, Queenie takes the baby in as their own. Unable to conceive herself, she names him Benjamin and we soon see the humor and irony in an 80 year-old baby growing up around seniors in the twilight of their lives. Of course, there’s the obvious connection between the nature of childhood and old age, and the film emphasizes that with both humorous and poignant moments.
Much time is spent on his youth where he befriends a girl named Daisy (Elle Fanning), unafraid of his old man looks, whose grandmother lives in the home. The children play together and listen to Daisy’s grandmother read from a storybook. Of course, it becomes clear from her introduction that Daisy will go on to play a major part in his life. Soon Benjamin is lifting his geriatric bones out of the confines of his wheelchair at a tent revival. Next thing we know he’s flexing in the mirror, checking out his new bod. As Benjamin sees the old people he grew up with slowly fade away as he grows younger, he realizes that he has indeed outgrown his home. He sets off to make his way in the world and “find himself”.
Appearing in his early 60’s but biologically in the prime of his late 20’s, he gets a job working on a tugboat run by Captain Jack (Jared Harris), who has quite an eye-opening influence on Benjamin. We see him get deflowered in a brothel and then travel with him as he sets off to sea. The whole time he never stops sending postcards to Daisy from everywhere he visits. During a stay in Russia, Benjamin meets a Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), who is married to a British spy and falls in love with her. Daisy is visibly hurt to receive this news via postcard. Why he feels compelled to tell her is beyond me. In fact, why Fincher takes entirely too long with this tryst is also a mystery. It’s an obvious step in character development and while it is interesting it is a bit too slow-moving.
The pace of the story picks up immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor as Benjamin’s fling ends. Captain Mike and his crew get enlisted by the U. S. Navy. There’s a thrilling battle at night as they engage a German U-boat that displayed some amazing visual effects. At this time, Benjamin is greatly impacted at seeing death outside that of a nursing home, in a different more realistic way. After much heartbreak and dejection, he eventually reconnects with Daisy (now played by Cate Blanchett), who has become an accomplished dancer. By the time they meet at the same age in the mid-60’s, they fall in love and move in together back in New Orleans. They may be the same age and physical perfection (after all, it’s Pitt and Blanchett) but I must admit, seeing them together was rather dull.
The story takes an inevitable heart-warming and heart-breaking turn once the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy becomes more problematic than romantic. Her natural aging and his reverse aging weighs heavily on them and to be honest it also affects the story. I won’t say more except it’s hard to say who endures more in life, Benjamin or the ones close to him. Pitt is actually better as the man-child than as the child-man who looks like the Pitt we know. Generally, I do like his acting chops. I know, not many do. Yet here, interacting with the alluring Blanchett, there just doesn’t seem to be anything behind Pitt’s cool blue eyes. He brings more to the story when his face is digitally pasted or covered in makeup effects.
Fincher bookends and weaves the story around an elderly Daisy, lying in a New Orleans hospital bed in 2005 symbolically surrounded by a swelling Hurricane Katrina. Her daughter Caroline (a wonderful Julia Ormond) reads to her Benjamin’s diary filled with pictures and postcards that serves as the device in which we come to hear Pitt narrating the movie as Button. This method does work, yet at times it becomes a narrative derailment. There are some events that Benjamin couldn’t have possibly have known specific details cuz he wasn’t there. It’s a storytelling device that’s often used for dramatic effect in films. Spielberg used in “Saving Private Ryan” and James Cameron in “Titanic”, where both expansive stories are told from the memories of an elderly character yet that person could not have possible witnessed all that is covered in those respective films. In a way it is a narrative cheat that is not noticed until the proper attention is given to it. In fact, I had no problem with this approach, except in retrospect and even then, only slightly.
Fincher has pulled off a remarkable feat by executing a story with much grace and depth while providing an amazing visual canvas. Sure the script kinda meanders a lil here and there but at least there’s no flippant quotes like “Life is like a box of chocolates”, don’t get me wrong, I like “Forrest Gump” but I do prefer it when a film shows me a message instead of telling it to me. It’s refreshing that the film turns out to be a showcase for some amazing female performances still it’s hard to deny credit to Pitt and how he handles the range of emotion and age that is thrust upon him. Neither Blanchett or Pitt let the make-up hinder or do all the work for them, but rather they convey characters inhabiting different eras while maintaining the core of who they are.
Essentially, the film is about death and realizing how precious life is while witnessing those loved ones around you pass on. The message is basically that you can change your life at any time and make the most of it. Pitt summed it up best in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “I find “Benjamin” is about those universal things we all share….that 95 percent that makes us all the same, wherever we are in the world. Our loves, our hopes, but also all the loss that we walk around with and hide very well, and the ultimate notion that we’re all expendable.”
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