Thursday, December 25, 2008
Movie review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
For those who are willing to just sit back and watch the weird, wild, and fascinating life of Benjamin Button pass by, it's one of the best movies of the year.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of those high-concept ideas that's been bouncing around Hollywood for decades (literally – it's loosely based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald). No one had been able to wrap their head around on how to film the story of a man who ages backward until director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), working from a script by writer Eric Roth (Robin Swicord is also credited with the screen story), gave it a shot.
The story of Button is told through flashbacks, with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, having her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond, back from the brink) read a diary of sorts that Benjamin (Brad Pitt) had given her. Even this part is set in the past, as Daisy is in a New Orleans hospital, with, apropos of nothing, Hurricane Katrina bearing down on them.
What follows is a 2 ½ hour leisurely trip through the strange and wonderful life of Benjamin. Born in New Orleans, he's quickly thrust into the hands of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) after his mother dies in childbirth and his father can't stand the sight of him. Fortuitously, Queenie runs a retirement home, so the oddly-old Benjamin fits right in as he grows “up.” (His condition is tenuously tied to the act of a seemingly-unrelated clockmaker who makes a clock for a train station that runs backward.)
One of the best things about the film is how it constantly challenges the audience in their acceptance of Benjamin and what he can and can't do. Benjamin and Daisy start their lifelong relationship when she's 7 and he appears to be 70. As he gradually gets older/younger, he tests more and more boundaries, gaining access to things such as bars and brothels that would normally be off limits to a person his age.
When the opportunity to work on a tugboat comes his way, he jumps at the chance, setting into motion a journey that takes him all over the world. All the while, he and Daisy keep in touch via letters and postcards, constantly circling each other, but almost never settling in the same place at the same time.
With a plot that follows a man throughout his life as he travels the world and his on-again/off-again relationship with one certain female, Button bears more than a passing resemblance to another Roth-scripted film: Forrest Gump. There are even certain other elements the two have in common, such as Benjamin speaking in a distinctly Southern accent, always calling Queenie “Mama,” and a repeating symbol of a hummingbird, similar to the feather symbol in Gump.
By no means is Button just a blatant rip-off of the Oscar-winning Gump, though. In fact, overall, Button feels like a fantastical mash-up of Gump and Magnolia, playing off of the various events that determine a character's fate. The biggest difference is the presence of Fincher. This film is certainly a departure for a director mostly known for his dark and disturbing movies, but even though there are sentimental elements, Fincher never allows it to descend into maudlin territory.
The biggest challenge facing the film, of course, was how to accurately show a man being born as an 80-year-old and follow him as he ages younger. Fincher uses a total of seven different actors (including Pitt) to play Benjamin, though, through some wondrous special effects work, Pitt's face is superimposed on three of them (he, of course, uses his own body and face for much of the film). It all works like a charm, with the most fascinating results coming when he's “old.”
Of course, all this would fall apart if Pitt weren't up to the challenge, but fortunately he is. He makes it truly a joy to watch Benjamin grow young, giving just the right touch no matter what age he's supposed to be. In fact, since most of the stages of Benjamin's life have been shown in ads, the allure of the film doesn't lie in how he'll look but in how he acts. Blanchett does equally good work, as does Tilda Swinton in a brief appearance.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a perfect movie. Without a specific plot, many may find its running time arduous. Its similarities to Gump may be a turnoff to some, as well. But for those who are willing to just sit back and watch the weird, wild, and fascinating life of Benjamin Button pass by, it's one of the best movies of the year.