Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
It is said that youth is wasted on the young, but in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the title character is blessed – and cursed – to live life the other way around. Born a frail, infant-sized old man with cataracts and arthritis, Benjamin grows younger as he grows up – shedding years as he increases in size and developing mentally as his body ages backward. It’s a trick that adds a level of suspense to an otherwise simple tale of a man’s journey through life, but it also brings the routine stages of that life into sharp relief. Ordinary occurrences – like a boy leaving his mother to make his way in the world, or a couple deciding whether or not to have a child – take on an added urgency and poignancy. The result is a whimsical but uncommonly moving examination of a life lived and lost. It’s also one of my favorite big movies of the year; one that pulls off the sweeping sense of satisfaction that is almost unique to big Hollywood productions at their best and which are a perfect compliment to this wintry and reflective time of year.
Taking as a starting point the kernel of an idea behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s same-titled short story, director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth quickly steer the narrative in a different direction. In Fitzgerald’s story, Benjamin is (somehow) born aged and fully-grown only to regress both mentally and physically over the course of the story’s 9,000 or so words. Here, Benjamin begins life as an infant – one who is wrinkly and infirm but otherwise a newborn inside and out. Ultimately he learns to walk and talk (in an eye-popping feat of special effects looking for all the world like a tiny old Brad Pitt), but as he grows and develops mentally he physically de-ages.
Where Fitzgerald’s story gets most of its momentum from the contrast between Benjamin and the rest of the world, Fincher and Roth have found further depth in the material by enhancing Benjamin’s internal contradiction. It’s a shift that highlights the imbalance in all our lives where there is seemingly only a brief window of time when we’re perfectly aligned both physically and mentally. This spin gives the story a more human slant and keeps it from being lost in its own gimmickry.
It is this humanity that elevates Benjamin Button artistically above Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump to which Fincher’s film has been frequently and unfairly compared. There are structural similarities and the films share a certain whimsy, but where Forrest Gump the character is used to trace the sweep of history with a sentimental, revisionist and slightly-too-clever-for-it’s-own-good eye, Button turns it around and instead uses the passage of time as a canvas against which a life can be examined in clearer detail. It’s a more introspective and probing film. It is fascinated with life and death, with love and loss, with twists of fate and with the fragility of history.
Benjamin Button is also at its heart a love story. If life offers only a brief window of perfection, it’s a rare thing that those moments can align for two people. Love is a matter of timing, being with the right person at the right time, and here the timing is complicated because the lovers are aging in two different directions. Benjamin meets Daisy when he’s chronologically 11 years old, but physically he’s closer to 70. She’s roughly the same age but a normal little girl. There is a spark between them, but the timing is wrong even as their paths cross repeatedly throughout the story. This is the nature of things. It’s is also the nature of things that, even if we’re lucky enough to find the right person at the right moment in time, it’s going to end in sadness for someone no matter what paths our lives take. There’s no escaping that.
As it follows Benjamin from his infancy though childhood to his going off to war and returning, the story is largely episodic, held together mostly by Brad Pitt’s narration as he traces the ups and downs of his odd life. Serving as a bookend to the narrative is a part of the story told in the present day as an elderly Daisy lies dying in her New Orleans hospital bed while her grown daughter Caroline reads to her from a diary that had belonged to Benjamin. Every incident of which Benjamin writes is another layer to the story; each one building upon the other thematically and narratively as the whole emerges in all its richness and we discover the true nature of Benjamin’s relationship with they dying woman.
Carrying the bulk of the film is Brad Pitt as the title character. Even as a special effect placing his mannerisms in the body of a strange, tiny old man or buried under old-age makeup, Pitt comes through and we see his personality develop from that of a little boy into a mature, middle-aged man. Considering the circumstances it’s a fairly restrained performance and it works convincingly.
As the object of his desire, Daisy is played by Elle Fanning at age 6, Madisen Beaty at age 10 and a luminous Cate Blanchett thereafter. In less screen time than that afforded Pitt, Blanchett must bring her character from a wide-eyed young girl to a selfish and somewhat pretentious 20-something to a more mature middle age and finally to an elderly dying woman. She hits a different note at each stage, but they’re all clearly a part of the same character. She’s also assisted by special effects and make-up, but it’s her performance that makes it work.
Among the large and capable supporting cast, Taraji P. Henson stands out as Queenie, the New Orleans old-age home caregiver who finds the strange looking infant Benjamin on her doorstep one night in 1918 as the country celebrates the end of World War I. Though she doesn’t give birth to Benjamin, she gives the man-child a life, at first assuming that life won’t be very long, but eventually easing into the assumed role of motherhood. She’s the warm beating heart and moral center of the first half of the film, bringing it dignity and giving it direction.
Also excellent is a weary and distracted Julia Ormond in a small but important role as Daisy’s grown daughter. She beautifully captures the awkward mix of concern and frustration and guilt and sadness of a woman losing a mother. There is the weight of history behind her performance and you get a real sense of the lifetime between these two women even after the briefest of introductions.
Another star of Benjamin Button is the miraculous work of the special effects crew. The ample CGI here is deployed completely at the service of the story rather than the other way around. Such effects-heavy films run the risk of getting caught up in their own gee whiz flashiness and drowning their story in technological wonder, but Fincher never loses site of the human core of his narrative. The effects, though amazing, are blended seamlessly with reality. Rarely a distraction, they’re all the more remarkable for not standing out. It’s a shame that their careful disguise might keep them from getting awards attention in the shadow of a couple of superhero pictures for which the special effects are more of an obvious crutch.
Where the film appears to stumble a little bit is that some of the episodes and subplots are a little undercooked. There’s a thread involving Benjamin’s real father for example that isn’t quite fully developed. Also, the modern day bookends risk feeling tacked on, especially with a Hurricane Katrina component. In retrospect however, each element is simply another layer to the story. Some are deeper than others, but none of them necessarily stand on their own and all of them combine to enhance the richness of the whole – a whole that works beautifully.
Compared to other mainstream films of its type, Benjamin Button is also not so nakedly manipulative. It never stoops for the heavy drama or easy sentimentality you’d expect from such a film, but I have to admit personally I was in the mood for a little more in the way of emotional pandering. Time and again the film brought me close to tears, but then backed off and I wish that it hadn’t. However, every viewer’s response will be different and in the end I think it’s a better film for showing a little restraint.
Overall, from the thematically layered story to Alexandre Desplat’s sensitive score (punctuated with carefully chosen and mostly unobtrusive pop music to help establish the ever-shifting time and place), Claudio Miranda’s beautiful cinematography, the remarkable effects work and finally the carefully tuned performances underpinning the whole thing, Fincher’s film is an elegant, finely modulated and nearly flawless piece of work. In the scope of what the director is attempting, he leaves himself open to nitpicking and not everyone will fall for his vision, but for those of us so smitten, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a joy to behold and easily a late-inning candidate for the best movie of 2008.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. USA 2008. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Eric Roth from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cinematography by Claudio Miranda. Music composed by Alexandre Desplat. Edited by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. Production design by Donald Graham Burt and Kelly Curley. Costumes designed by Jacqueline West. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Jared Harris, Elias Koteas, Phyllis Sommerville, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning and Madisen Beaty. 2 hours 47 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Alexandre Desplat, Angus Wall, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Claudio Miranda, David Fincher, Donald Graham Burt, Elias Koteas, Elle Fanning, Eric Roth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jacqueline West, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Julia Ormond, Kelly Curley, Kirk Baxter, Madisen Beaty, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Phyllis Sommerville, Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Tilda Swinton