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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

* * * *

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a beautiful, glossy epic about enduring love, the inevitability of loss, and the futility of fighting against the current of time. I can see from other reviews that this is proving to be a divisive film, one you either love or hate. Well, I loved it and let me tell you why:

The film traces two lives, one going backward and one going forward. First we meet Daisy (Cate Blanchett), on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital as hurricane Katrina bears down, and then, in flashback, we meet Benjamin (Brad Pitt), whom doctors give up for dead as soon as he’s born. Benjamin suffers from a strange affliction which makes it appear that he’s an old man when he’s just a baby and as time carries on it becomes clear that he’s getting physically younger with each year. He’s raised by Queenie (Taraji Henson) in a home for the elderly where he seems to fit right in and where he meets Daisy, who appears to be decades younger than him, though in actuality they were born only a few years apart. Benjamin grows down and Daisy grows up and they drift away from and back towards each other until the time finally comes when they’re about the same age.

The success of the film rests largely on the ability of Pitt and Blanchett to play the span of decades, which both accomplish with admirable skill. Obviously makeup and computer graphics have been used to aid in their physical transformations, but these are performances that add up to a lot more than visual trickery. Pitt’s role is especially difficult because the younger he looks, the older he must seem and he imbues Benjamin with the quiet wisdom of a man who has seen and experienced much and solemnly accepts that things change and that sometimes holding on to the past does more damage than good. Blanchett is luminous, particularly as Daisy attempts to negotiate the shifting balance in her relationship with Benjamin as he becomes more youthful and “perfect” while she grows older as less perfect.

The film is based on the short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald but departs from it pretty significantly. In fact, the only things the two works really have in common are the premise, the name of the protagonist and the title, which isn’t a bad thing because while Fitzgerald’s piece is well-written, it’s ultimately quite frivolous and lacking in resonance. The film, on the other hand, is very moving once you get past the fact that it’s been built on a template borrowed from Forrest Gump (both screenplays were written by Eric Roth). There were moments when I felt that Button was a bit derivative, but it ultimately won me over, which is no mean feat given that it reminded me of a movie that I loathe. But while Gump is hung on a maudlin string of too clever by half pop culture references, Button doesn’t spend half its running time winking at you.

I doubt that even the greatest champion of this film would argue that it’s without its flaws. With a running time of nearly 3 hours it’s long and there is a lot of fat that could have been trimmed from it. You could also argue that the longest section of the story concerns Benjamin and Daisy when they’re at their least interesting – during that sweet spot where they’re level with each other in terms of age. I would certainly agree that both Pitt and Blanchett are at their best as the elderly versions of their characters, and I would also agree that it occasionally wanders too far into the realm of sentimentality. All that being said, however, it struck a chord with me and I enjoyed it immensely.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice review. I liked the movie too, far better than Forrest Gump (a film devoted to baby boomers congratulating themselves for their adventures). Button shows how there's pathos in doing what most Americans would like to do--revert to one's youth, and it ultimately doesn't matter what direction one ages in. Benjamin's unique perspective adds poignance to the idea of seize the day. Somehow finishing with the dawn seems just as ghastly as ending with the sunset.

Anonymous said...

Cate Blanchett with a southern accent FTW; but Benjamin Button kept dragging on, always pausing dramatically on Brad Pitt's face, a lot like Meet Joe Black, FTL