The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) / Fantasy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief violence, sexual content, language, and smoking
Running time: 166 min.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Rampal Mohadi, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning
Cameo: Eleas Koteas
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Eric Roth (based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Review published January 6, 2009
Very loosely based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald of 1921, the film version pushes forward the timeline of the story to the bulk of the 20th Century. We start the film off in 2005, where we find an elderly woman named Daisy (Blanchett, Indiana Jones 4) on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital, just prior to the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. Daisy asks her accompanying daughter (Ormond, I Know Who Killed Me) to read aloud the diary of Benjamin Button (Pitt, Burn After Reading), who, at the end of World War I, was born with the size of a baby, but the appearance and relative health conditions (saggy skin, cataracts, etc.) of a man on the verge of dying of old age. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father (Flemyng, Stardust), traumatized by the sight of his freakish child, drops him off on the steps of a retirement home, where he is adopted by his new mother figure, the African-American proprietor named Queenie (Henson, Smokin' Aces). Though originally thought to be dying, Benjamin's health continuously improves as he grows older (or is that younger?) It is there that Benjamin forms a friendship with Daisy as a young girl (Fanning, Deja Vu), visiting her grandmother, though his elderly appearance prevents him from getting too close to her despite his chronological youth.
Through the course of the rest of the film, we learn of Benjamin's exploits once leaving the home in his late teens, working on a boat that reached ports all over the world. His love affairs are depicted, one involving his first experiences with a lonely married woman named Elizabeth (Swinton, Prince Caspian). However, his true love, Daisy, would return to his life time and again, though the timing doesn't quite hit right on their relationship until they are both relatively close in appearance of age. Complications arise in this burgeoning relationship of a woman growing older while her partner grows younger.
Screenwriter Eric Roth (The Good Shepherd, Munich), king of the script meant as a three-hour movie, crafted a similar odyssey of the fantastic with his Oscar-winning script for Forrest Gump, of which this tall tale feels like a cousin to in its personal journey, scope and effect. Heck, he even meets a U.S. President (Teddy Roosevelt in this one.) Yes, it's another journey across the 20th Century and quaint Americana (with world events thrown in) through the eyes of a uniquely special central male protagonist.
The film boasts some of the best prosthetic aging make-up and digital effects I've seen in a movie to date, starting with the first shots of incredibly convincing prosthetic work with Cate Blanchett as an elderly Daisy. Pitt's head is digitally placed onto the bodies of other older actors in a way that, while not 100% seamless, is convincing enough not to distract much whenever he grows taller or younger. There are some voice work choices that can be distracting, such as the five-year-old Daisy's all voice that sounds a little too adult to come out of a child's mouth. Moments that have Button's old man look frolicking with a prepubescent girl make for a little discomfort, but Fincher and Roth traverse the tricky territory with skill and tact.
If there is an element that Fincher's film strives for but doesn't quite achieve, it's that of an emotional core. Some might attribute this to Fincher, a former music video helmer known for his cold and violent thrillers, dabbling for the first time in a softer, more romantic film than he's made in the past. While one can sense the melancholy nature of the events of the film, there never is that gut emotional reaction when characters experience tragedies or death. Given the wide story arc of the film, perhaps having a close enough interest in the characters is a bit much to ask, though there is a romance at the heart of the story, and these two characters dominate much of the action we see. Though these characters are fascinating in their peculiarities, they feel more like representations of greater themes more so than as individuals with true hearts and souls. Perhaps this can be said for the movie as a whole, as the allegorical nature of the events dictate the characterizations through and through.
Benjamin Button is perhaps the least nuanced of the characters in terms of depth, more an observer of others who've fleshed out their particular niches in life and art, while his role in life seems to be there to experience these along with them. Others seem to leave a more lasting impression on him than he does on them, despite the extraordinary qualities and unique life experience he possesses.
Motifs on spinning abound, from the movements of clocks, both clockwise and counter, to the repetition of Daisy's pirouettes, her part in "Carousel," to sunrises and sunsets, to the slow, rumbling revolutions of the impending hurricane. Daisies and buttons are also circular. All recall the passage of time, beginnings and endings, and the cycle of life that exists before and after one's place on Earth. There is also an oft-remarked but poignant comparison between one's youngest years and one's oldest, as we need caring for, we don't quite have all of our faculties, and, as the film alludes to, we start and end up in diapers either way.
Perhaps I'm missing a point here, but there are a few things I do find inconsistent regarding the whole "body ages backward while mind ages forward" business. One happens to be that, having established that Benjamin's body has all of the signs of an ailing, elderly man, how is it that he has the superman stamina to completely leave a brothel prostitute breathless while still in the body of an old man? Perhaps its the exuberance felt of his first sexual experience, or maybe he's just a very fit older man, working physical labor all day making him strong. The size of his body is also a question mark. As people age, their bodies do tend to shrink, but not to the size of a baby at the end of their lives. Benjamin's body seems proportionate to a child developing on both ends of his life.
If it sounds like I'm nitpicking throughout this review, perhaps I am. I actually enjoyed the film quite a bit, and give the makers a great deal of credit for crafting a film that can keep the interest of most viewers for a long duration with a minimal amount of drag. It's a beautiful film to look at, with stellar cinematography, a rousing score, and digital effects that blend with the live actors without much intrusion. The performance by Pitt ranks among his very finest, and Blanchett has rarely been so alluring. In short, it's one of the best films of the year, even with some of the aforementioned distractions.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't a pat and easily digestible film, with more than a touch of narrative excess, much like Forrest Gump in that fashion, allowing the viewer to draw conclusions in their own minds as to what the film is ultimately about. Perhaps it will ultimately be more of a gorgeous, technically brilliant curiosity than a full-fledged masterpiece, but it's certainly an ambitious, grandiose story. Bizarre and stolid to a certain extent, and yet consummately fascinating; it holds together well, thanks to the immense skill of everyone involved.
©2008 Vince Leo