Sunday, January 25, 2009
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Oscar Quest concludes (well, the Best Picture round anyway) with a much-belated look at David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie which, to say the least, pleasantly surprised me. Granted, the night after watching The Reader I could have watched Silent Night Deadly Night 2 or (God help us) The Trial of Billy Jack and probably found it more enjoyable, but Benjamin Button greatly exceeded my expectations in delivering a thoughtful, touching, and most of all entertaining film.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born in 1918 New Orleans, afflicted with a strange, unaccountable condition: he is born with the attributes of an old man. Abandoned by his father (Jason Flemyng), he is adopted by Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) and Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a black couple who help run a nursing home. As time goes on, Benjamin not only survives infancy, but grows up, regressing in age as time goes by. He lives a long and full life, serving on the crew of a tugboat, and cultivating a lifelong romance with dancer Daisy (Cate Blanchett), but is cursed by his affliction - which those around him wither and die while he grows ever more young and handsome.
I would be lying if I didn't tell you I went into the movie with pretty low expectations; the plot idea seemed tacky and ridiculous, and I'd heard many people whose opinions I respect (not least of all Roger Ebert) badmouth the film or at least express disappointment. Certainly the film has an odd premise and its share of false notes. But overall it surprised me, making at least three Best Picture nominees that I wouldn't mind winning, unlike last year's zero.
The movie is extremely effective at what it sets out to do. It uses its admittedly odd and somewhat gimmicky idea the best possible way; by framing its story around and emphasizing a message of love, loss and the inexorable march of time. One might argue that Benjamin is no more cursed than anyone else who lives to an old age and has to watch their relatives die. Fair enough, but what does Benjamin have to look forward to? Moving backwards as he is, he is unable to live of a life with any degree of satisfaction or real enjoyment out of his life. Too old to form a proper relationship with Daisy as a child, too young to maintain it as she she ages, he can only maintain his relationships when on just the right wavelength of the others, and then watch them wither and die while he turns into Brad Pitt. It's to the credit of Fincher and his writers (and certainly the cast) that they're able to turn this silly concept into something touching and almost profound; it pulls all of the right emotional strings without being cloying or obnoxious. If it's manipulative, it's the good kind.
Many people have compared the film to Forrest Gump, not the least because it shares screenwriter Eric Roth. This is only valid in an oblique sense, of a man living through a long swath of history and its important events. If anything, however, the movie is the anti-Gump; whereas Forrest was a nitwit who had a major impact on history without realizing it, Benjamin is a man all too painfully aware of himself, and yet he actually achieves very little, professionally or personally; even his war service is marked by chance survival rather than any heroics, and that's probably the biggest achievement of his entire life. Even then, the film doesn't dwell on its historical events, and at best skims over its context. I dare posit that any film about the life of a person would have to deal with the events they lived through, yes?
The movie's message is not entirely original, but it's well-done anyway. The plot device is a bit odd but avoids being tacky; it's used well to push the story's message forward. The movie's only major flaws are the lame framing device involving a dying Daisy and her daughter (Julia Ormond) in hospital, during Hurricane Katrina of all things, and the illogical progression of Benjamin's growth; if he started out as an infirm baby, shouldn't he grow into a young-looking old man rather than regressing back to infancy? (This is the exact opposite of the original F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, but I digress.) Considering the whole, though, those are relatively minor complaints.
David Fincher's direction is wonderful. His films (Se7en, Fight Club) usually have a forced, false atmosphere of doom, gloom and despair that is turned into wistful nostalgia here. The film maintains a fantastic, nostalgic, almost dream-like atmosphere throughout, never seeming completely real. His sense of shadow and color, the strong point of his other films, survives here and thrives as well in an atypical context. The make-up is astonishing, as is to be expected. Alexandre Desplat's contributes a moody, emotional musical score that enhances the proceedings considerably.
The film's acting is very good. Brad Pitt does a nice job depicted Benjamin's improbable evolution, managing to make him believable in spite of the copious make-up job. It's not the greatest performance of Pitt's career but it's a nice turn anyway. Cate Blanchett, however, is most wonderful; she pulls off a difficult character extremely well; I don't know how she missed out on an Oscar nod. (As an aside, I've always loved her as an actress but I've never found her more luminously beautiful and attractive than here.) The supporting cast contains its share of gems, including Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, Tilda Swinton as Benjamin's short-lived English lover, and Ted Manson as the poor fellow who always gets hit by lightning.
Flaws aside, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a really fine film. Its insights are timeless if not particularly original, and except for a few kinks in plot and story dynamics it's a near-flawless piece of entertainment. 8/10 and #5/22 for 2008
Rating: 8/10 - Highly Recommended
So, what's next?