January 5, 2009

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

benjaminbutton4_largeIn 1921, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It was a tale of a child born with the body of an old man. As the child grew up his body grew younger. In the story, Benjamin's father forced his young, er, old son to disguise himself, so as to appear younger and help avoid embarrassment to the family. His mother would buy him toys and he would have to play with them, despite having more adult desires. The story follows him as he grows up and becomes younger, travels the world, fights in war, and goes to school during the second half of his life rather than the first. I have never read the story, but the description I did read differs greatly in execution from what is offered up in David Fincher's film. However, the core of what makes the story interesting appears to have remained intact.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an interesting tale of contradictions, both internal and external. I was simultaneously drawn into the emotional tale and held at arms length from becoming too invested. The central character is a contradiction by definition, the child born old who ages in reverse. Benjamin is someone in the world but not of the world. It is a film that is near poetic with meaning, while also maddeningly obtuse. In the end, it is a movie that bears enough evidence to sway viewers to the side of love just as it contains enough to push them in the opposite direction. I have found the film more poetic than not, engrossing in its slowly paced flow, and a film that will require multiple viewings in order to determine a final opinion. Fortunately, there is enough to it to warrant a desire to revisit.

benjaminbuttonpic30As the film opens, we get a sequence chronicling a blind clock maker building a clock for a new and massive train station in the year 1918. When the clock is unveiled, it is discovered that it ticks backwards. The maker states this is in hopes that time can be turned backwards and the sons lost to the war can be brought back to life and return home unharmed. This coincides with the birth of a baby that looks like an old man. The child's mother dies in childbirth, and the father is horrified by what his child appears to be. His first instinct is to hurl the innocent tyke into the river, but when he is spied attempting to off his offspring, he sprints off into the night, swaddled child in hand. He comes upon a house where he hears voices emanating from within. He leaves the child on the stoop and retreats back into the inky dark, apparently regretting his initial instinct and feeling guilty over what he has done.

The child is discovered by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and her boyfriend Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). She takes him in and raises him like her own son. It doesn't hurt that she is also the live in help at a home for old folks, a place where Benjamin fits right in and it is also easy to keep his secret.

No one really knows why Benjamin was born this way, or what will happen when he grows older and older, and the film makes no attempt to explain why his life is the way it is. It is probably for the better. It moves forward in such a way that you have no choice but to accept it and move on. Forget about the utter implausibility of the device and see the device for what it is trying to accomplish. What it is trying to accomplish is the hard part. Frankly, I am not quite sure. There is something to be said for its look into life as a series of vignettes, watching the world pass you by without ever being truly a part of it.

benjaminbuttonpic5The first act of the film follows Benjamin through his young formative years. He seems perfectly adjusted to his state, moving slowly like an old man, but having an inquisitive mind that wants to learn and wants to play. Still, he is astute enough to restrain himself from getting in too deep in most cases, although occasionally succumbing to the desires to explore. It is here that he first meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the woman with whom he falls in love with, yet who he only spends limited time with as life takes them along different paths that only converge for mere moments.

The second act sees Benjamin strong enough to live on his own and curious enough to leave the old folks home in order to explore the world. He finds work on a tugboat and serves on it through World War II. He also experiences intimate love, having an affair with a British woman (Tilda Swinton) living in Russia. It is an experience that has an effect on Benjamin, but does not last.

The final act has Benjamin returning home, reuniting with Daisy, if only temporarily. It is here where the overarching romance has its biggest impact as when he and Daisy are able to spend time with each other, there is no time to truly enjoy it.

benjaminbuttonpic14Brad Pitt is the heart and soul of the film, delivering one of his finer performances. It is not a showy acting job, it is one of subtlety and nuance. He succeeds in creating a character that feels genuine, but also feels just a little bit off. There is a profound sadness to the character. He has an understanding of what is happening to him, he also knows that there is no one else like him. How can he live a completely fulfilling life like that? He becomes enamored with Daisy at a young age as she showed a kindness to him not shown by anyone else outside of his adoptive mother. He latches onto the dream of being with her to help him get through his own life. All through his worldwide adventures, his interactions with the woman in Russia, his thoughts remain with Daisy. It is achingly romantic, terribly poetic, and surprisingly less sentimental than you would think. It all comes down to the quiet performance delivered by Brad Pitt.

David Fincher is an interesting choice for this material. Fincher is a fantastic director known for taking on darker material, this definitely has its dark side, so that is not where the change there. However, this material could have taken a highly sentimental route, ala Forrest Gump (a film which shares its screenwriter, Eric Roth), and this is not something seen very often in Fincher's work. It is true there is sentimentality in the film, but it is kept at a minimum, it plays a good part in the story, but it never overtakes it. Fincher does a fine job at keeping this lengthy film focused on its central character and the exploration of self through this odd aging process. I am still at a loss as to what it all means, but that does not diminish the journey.

Oh yes, I would be remiss if I did not mention the special effects. In short, they are fantastic. They are seamless as the show this odd aging/growing progress through the film. From the little old man Pitt to the younger than he's been in years Pitt, you will have no troiuble believing what you see is real.

Bottomline. This is a movie that needs to be seen, for better or for worse. All too often films state their intentions right up front, leaving nothing to be discovered and nothing to reward multiple viewings. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not one of those films. There are layers here to be peeled back and exposed to the light of day. A trip well worth taking.

Highly Recommended.


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