Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button / **½ (PG-13)

Benjamin Button: Brad Pitt
Daisy: Cate Blanchett
Queenie: Taraji P. Henson
Caroline: Julia Ormond
Thomas Button: Jason Flemyng
Tizzy: Mahershalalhashbaz Ali
Captain Mike: Jared Harris
Elizabeth Abbott: Tilda Swinton

Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a film directed by David Fincher. Written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Running time: 159 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking).

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is indeed a curious case. Seeing it, you will see the portrait of a life. It’s a strange life in that it’s the life of a man who is born old and grows young. But it’s a life like any other. It’s about how any of us live our lives. How the many people we know and love pass in and out of our lives. How we begin feeble and fragile and end in much the same state. How the way you live your life is more important than the details contained within it. But why is its premise so strange?

Director David Fincher has crafted an evocative movie that spans through a good deal of American history—from the very end of the First World War to the storm of the century that was hurricane Katrina. Through it we see the life of Benjamin Button, who makes the phrase “a curious case” into a grand understatement. His mother gives her life in child birth, but his father can’t stand the thought of raising the “monster” his son appears to be—a baby with sagging skin and other traits of an old man. He leaves the baby at an old folks home run by Queenie, who takes the boy in as her own child. As he grows through his developmental childhood, his old appearance allows him to fit in easily at the home. But soon life beckons, and only then does Benjamin’s curious case begin to resemble life as we all know it.

The central relationship in Benjamin’s life is a romance with a girl he meets in the home named Daisy. She is about the same age as him when they meet during a visit to her grandmother. Although he looks like one of the home’s clients, she senses something different about him and a bond forms between the two. As Benjamin learns and grows through life, he and Daisy will come into and out of each other’s lives until their mutual destiny is made clear.

Fincher (“Zodiac”) and his screenwriters Eric Roth (“Munich”) and Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) tell their tale at and even keel, never rushing Benjamin’s life from one point to the next. They effectively evoke the epic nature of an individual life. Fincher’s direction wonderfully captures the time periods Benjamin’s life explores—from his time on a Navy commissioned tug boat during World War II to the explorative artistic scene of 1950s New York City. Fincher even uses old sepia tones to evoke flashbacks to even earlier eras. But everything in Benjamin’s life seems to lead him back to the place of his birth—New Orleans.

Brad Pitt (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) and Cate Blanchett (“Babel”) bring their incredible ranges to two performances that span two of the longest natural human life spans seen on film. Their age work is the best I’ve seen, convincing in every stage of their characters’ lives. Pitt actually does double duty by portraying the old-age child Benjamin with the use of seamless special effects and make-up. Effects are also used on both actors to make them look younger than their ages at their opposing respective points.

There are also fine performances submitted for the many supporting characters in Benjamin’s life. Taraji P. Henson (“Hustle & Flow”) is every bit the mother Queenie needs to be, both for Benjamin and the clients who are left in her care to live out their final days. Jared Harris (FOX’s “Fringe”) brings humor and charm to his role as Captain Mike. And Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”) plays Benjamin’s first love in one of the movie’s more elegant segments. She’s an older woman who can sense the youth inside Benjamin that she cannot see and uses it to recapture her own lost lust for life.

But something is wrong with this movie. For all its beauty and care in the treatment of it’s subject, the gimmick of it gets in its way. I was reminded of “Forrest Gump” while watching it, often wondering just what the point of this whole tale was. Now, “Benjamin Button” is much more focused in its intentions than “Forrest Gump” was, as such is purpose is clearer. But in the end it doesn’t seem the premise of a man aging backwards is all that necessary for this particular portrait of life. Although the direction of the story is never predictable, the outcome is never surprising because this backwards life is really no different than a forward one. Much is made about the notion that everything changes, but this is neither a new idea nor one that is made clearer by living a life in reverse.

Fincher once again proves himself to be a master of mood, period and style with this film. And it very well may be that time will allow at least this critic to come to a deeper understanding of just why this story had to be told this way. But it seems to me that other than the fact that Benjamin Button starts out his life looking like an old man and ends it as a baby, there is nothing any more curious about his life than anyone’s. But just about anyone’s life can be curious indeed.

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