The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
Special Edition, Criterion Collection
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“I was born under unusual circumstances.” And so begins The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, adapted from the 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards: a man, like any of us, who is unable to stop time. We follow his story, set in New Orleans, from the end of World War I in 1918 into the 21st century, following his journey that is as unusual as any man’s life can be. Directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett with Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Julia Ormond, “Benjamin Button,” is a grand tale of a not-so-ordinary man and the people and places he discovers along the way, the loves he finds, the joys of life and the sadness of death, and what lasts beyond time.
The technical dazzle of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a truly astonishing thing to behold: this story of a man who ages backwards requires Brad Pitt to begin life as a tiny elderly man, then blossom into middle age, and finally, wisely, become young. How director David Fincher--with makeup artists, special-effects wizards, and body doubles--achieves this is one of the main sources of fascination in the early reels of the movie. The premise is loosely borrowed from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story (and bears an even stronger resemblance to Andrew Sean Greer's novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli), with young/old Benjamin growing up in New Orleans, meeting the girl of his dreams (Cate Blanchett), and sharing a few blissful years with her until their different aging agendas send them in opposite directions. The love story takes over the second half of the picture, as Eric Roth's script begins to resemble his work on Forrest Gump. This is too bad, because Benjamin's early life is a wonderfully picaresque journey, especially a set of midnight liaisons with a Russian lady (Tilda Swinton) in an atmospheric hotel. Fincher observes all this with an entomologist's eye, cool and exacting, which keeps the material from getting all gooey. Still, the Hurricane Katrina framing story feels put-on, and the movie lets Benjamin slide offscreen during its later stages--curious indeed.--Robert Horton
Stills from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Click for larger image)
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Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button, a man who essentially ages backwards. When he is born, his own father attempts to drown him before a sudden change of heart has him leaving the swaddled and very whithered newborn upon the steps of an elderly home. There he is found by Queenie, played to motherly perfection by Taraji P. Henson. She sees past the deformity and oddity and loves him immediately.
Instead of dying, as a doctor predicted, Benjamin actually begins to age backwards. He appears as a very old man and slowly grows younger, but only in body. His mind seems to function as a typical human's mind. He learns, and dreams and experiences. This basically sets up the magnificent story and from then on, you are taken from country to country, from one decade, to another and it is just superb to witness.
The acting is fantastic all around. Brad Pitt does an outstanding job, portraying both the old Benjamin as well as his younger counterpart. Cate Blanchett as his childhood friend/love interest is also a joy to watch. She can do no wrong, she is simply stunning. For such a short part, Tilda Swinton surely makes the most of it. Her tale and part with Benjamin in Russia is just stunning. There is also the talented Julia Ormond, who has a bigger part to play in the tale than we may realise at first.
The most impressive aspect of the film is the flawless visual effects. Just flawless. You have never seen aging/deaging done like this. There is a scene, towards the end, with Benjamin and Daisy (Blanchett) that had my jaw dropping. It was like looking back in time. I can't describe how utterly impressed I was. The cinematography, the sad musical score, the costumes, just every little minute detail is just so impressive and authentic.
I have heard grumbles from people who compare it to Forrest Gump. What? How? There should not be any comparing the two films-or the two characters. Gump was a slow and mostly ignorant person who fell into unbelievable situations. Button clearly chooses his own paths, though it may not seem it, at the beginning. It irritates me how someone can make such a comparison.
This is a long film, nearly three hours, though with the plot and subject matter, it makes sense and really, it is such a beautiful film, you hardly notice the passing of time. Like I mentioned, it will leave you feeling blue but that does not diminish from the fact this is one of the better newer films out there now, and one that people will remember in the future.
The film opens with Mr. Gateau (Cake) constructing a magical clock that runs backwards and mounting it in a train station in New Orleans in honor of his son, dead in the Great War. No mention is made again of Mr. Gateau or whether his clock was successful in rewinding time to bring dead boys back to life. It does have a curious effect on the life of one boy, though, as Benjamin enters the world essentially running backwards. As other reviewers have pointed out, it's quizzical that the clock has this metaphysical effect on only Benjamin among all the other children born afterwards, but then, fantasy is not required to operate by the rules of logic. Perhaps Benjamin, with a Gullah mother was particularly susceptible to magic, and how serendipitous that old-man baby Benjamin's grieving father abandoned him, along with $18 on the steps of an old-folks home, rather than say, a brothel . . .this being New Orleans, after all. What are the chances, outside the realm of fantastical fiction, furthermore that Benjamin's progenitor be named Mr. Button, and that he own a button factory? Otherwise we wouldn't have such nifty alliteration.
Countless comparisons have been made to "Forrest Gump", with which this narrative does share structural similarities. However, that didn't occur to me while I was watching and found instead resonance with one of Pitt's earlier characters, Tristan Ludlow from "Legends of the Fall"--like Benjamin, Tristan is a soul set apart, blessed or cursed with mystical powers he does not fully understand; uncomfortable among other people and destined to lose the true love of his life due to his own inability to live a normal life. Scenes of Benjamin travelling to foreign shores and sailing a boat underscored this impression. (The presence of Julia Ormond, here playing the adult daughter of the aged Daisy was just a bonus, since she and Pitt have no scenes together.) The setting of New Orleans during Benjamin's childhood in the early decades of the last century also reminded me of Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby".
This film is technically dazzling, but I think it was justly deprived of the top acting awards. With so much else to be distracted by, the acting had a job of it to even be noticed, really. Cate Blanchett is luminous, as usual. I had my doubts a 38-year-old mother of three could pull off a 23-year-old ballerina, but La Blanchett can do anything. The greatest curiosity I had, to be honest, was in how they were going to make Brad Pitt look 18 again. Brad has taken pretty good care of his body over the years, but the strain of being father to the United Tribe of Benetton is starting to show . . .at least when he's not on a movie set. When he's lit and coiffed for a film, he does not look anything like a 46-year-old father of six. He can easily pass for a decade younger . . .but I thought 18 would be pushing it. Well . . . did I say that the makeup department is amazing?? Looking at the scene of an 18-year-old Benjamin coming to visit the now-58-year-old Daisy--wow. It was like having a flashback to Mr. Pitt's debut in "Thelma & Louise", and it was a very unsettling feeling. "Unsettling" is the best descriptor for this movie. Parts of it were stunning to look at, but its tragic meditations on the ultimate inablity of love to bring any meaning to human life leaves you wrung out and uncertain whether you are better off having seen it than you were before.
All this amounts to an idea in search of a story. Imagine if you were asked to watch a monkey being born old, then slowly growing younger as time went on, until finally petering out. As a three minute video on Youtube this would be (kind of) interesting. If it went on for three hours, I don't think many viewers would last the distance. Without a story, the novelty wears thin - as is the case here.