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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond
Directed by: David Fincher
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Cean Chaffin
Written by: Eric Roth (screenplay & story), Robin Swicord (story)
Distributor: Paramount Pictures

     Every once in a great while, there comes an extraordinary movie that’s so transfixing and gracefully beautiful in the way it moves that viewers are as content to simply watch and marvel over it as it plays as they are confounded by how much it engrains itself into their memories days after they see it. The process of being so spellbound and entertained by a work that it resurfaces in the conscious over time defines Movie Magic and is precisely what Hollywood should strive when it commits fiction to the screen.


     Glib as the proclamation may sound: this year, David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was the movie that reminded me that the above kind of movie still exists. The picture—a fusion of old-fashioned storytelling, cutting-edge technology, and just plain brilliant talent— has left me so dumfounded and overwhelmed and giddy that I don’t know where to begin discussing it. Tack on the fact that the movie’s sense of time is out-of-whack itself—the title protagonist ages backwards—and I’m as good as screwed when it comes to writing this review.


     The movie was made from a screenplay of over 200 pages by Eric Roth, the brilliant writer who fifteen years ago penned Forrest Gump, another character-odyssey of infinite elements. Roth and fellow story-scribe Robin Swicord found their premise in an F. Scott Fitzgerald short-story: Benjamin Button is born with the body of an old man and grows physically younger as time passes. They expanded this into a work that encompasses the breadth of American history, the emotion of great romance, and the tragic inevitability of a life story.


     The basic idea behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is endlessly thought-provoking, but director Fincher would never let you know it as the tale unfolds. Something new and/or remarkable occupies the viewer’s immediate thoughts at every step of the way.


     After a brief, but vital parable on the nature of time that I dare not spoil, the film opens at the onset of Hurricane Katrina in a New Orleans hospital. Caroline (Julia Ormond) is comforting her dying 80-year-old mother Daisy (Cate Blanchett) amidst the sound of the harsh rain. At Daisy’s request, Caroline reads aloud from the diary of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), the great romance of her mother’s life who she never knew due to the extraordinary circumstances of his.


     What follows is the opus of Benjamin’s (indeed curious) existence, which began at the end of World War I and continued for the better part of the Twentieth Century. It seems foolish to go into detail because the movie’s intricacies are better left discovered, but I’ll summarize the main points for the sake of cogence. Born wrinkled and weathered to a mother who dies in childbirth, a crying Benjamin is left at the doorstep of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a caregiver for the elderly who raises him as her own. Defying doctors’ warnings of his impending death, Benjamin grows stronger by the day. He gains the ability to walk at seven, goes to work on a tugboat bound for Europe when his teenage body is strong enough to withstand the rocking waters, and has a passionate affair with a seductive Brit (Tilda Swinton) in a Russian hotel in his early twenties. During World War II, Benjamin finds himself aiding Allied Forces aboard the boat during his long return to Louisiana…


     … And I’ve just skipped over the most important part of the story. While away from home, Benjamin quietly yearns for Daisy, the woman who will eventually, fatefully become the love of his life. She’s the granddaughter of one of Queenie’s tenants, and she and Benjamin hit it off during childhood. In their early years, Daisy showed Benjamin the purest compassion he ever knew because her young, innocent eyes saw nothing wrong with his elderly appearance. Even Queenie, a woman with the kindest of hearts, all the while prayed for the boy because she knew he wasn’t normal. But to Daisy, Benjamin was simply her playmate.


    When Benjamin returns from Europe, he endures a great deal struggle to win Daisy over, just as the protagonist of every proper old-fashioned love-story should. But he and Daisy’s future together is certain. Unfortunately, just as their romance is an object of fate, so is the ultimate tragedy that Benjamin will continue to grow younger and Daisy older. They are helpless to their own devices and will one day be unable to coexist. The emotional impact therein is far greater than that of the standard epic love-story, which might fatally send the man to war or diagnose the woman with cancer. Benjamin and Daisy find themselves in a relationship that is destined to collapse in a slower, more painful fashion, and yet it’s all the more beautiful and moving and downright whimsical because they cannot help but embrace it regardless. A lot happens over the course of their lives that I will not reveal here, but I will assure you that each development feels as natural as it does unexpected. And all funnels back to our thoughts and passions tied to Benjamin and Daisy’s everlasting bond.


     Given the sweeping nature of the story, it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking the visuals in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are, a testament to how seamlessly they have been integrated into the film. Fincher employed impressive face-replacement technology that allowed Brad Pitt to play Benjamin at all periods of his life by animating his facial-expressions onto the profiles of actors whose bodies were better suited for the different ages. (Pitt is physically present for about two-thirds of the scenes, which he was able to pull off with simple make-up.) The film never once seems like it has been animated; all of the images are lifelike. This represents something of a landmark: a film with visuals so masterful that the viewer can’t tell the difference between reality and CGI. Sure, the feat has been achieved before with exploding buildings and end-of-the-world catastrophes, but to replicate it with something as sensitive and complex as the human face is remarkable. Let’s also not forget that the movie was shot digitally and yet boasts some of the best cinematography of the year thanks to Fincher’s career D.P. Claudio Miranda. Between the photography in this film and Slumdog Millionaire, I’m beginning to think that traditional 35mm has indeed met a formidable opponent.


     And the performances – how have I spent this long without gushing over them? While The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is by definition an auteur piece given Fincher has refined such a sprawling, mammoth project into a near-perfect symphony, the depth achieved by leads Pitt and Blanchett is equally vital to the film’s effectiveness. Pitt’s ability form a distinct character over so many different ages is a masterful achievement in and of itself; that he makes Benjamin one of the most sympathetic and relatable protagonists ever encountered is just an added bonus. It would be a shame if the Academy didn’t recognize him because he disappears into the role so much; I fear that voters who haven’t done their homework may not even recognize that Pitt plays Benjamin at every stage of life because the transformations are so unbelievable. With Ms. Blanchett, however, there is no such excuse for a snub: she’s recognizably mesmerizing throughout, like one of the screen-beauties seen in the 1930s epics to which this film’s form often pays tribute. She is the main reason the central romance works so well.


     All of the above comments represent initial reactions I had watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As I said in the opening of this review, it’s a film that begs to be simply experienced, so entrancing you almost forget you’re watching a movie even while recognizing its substantial narrative and stylistic accomplishments. I could go on about the thoughts I’ve had on the film’s themes about the nature of time and the sublimity of love in the week and a half since I saw it, but I fear that I would be analyzing a great film to death. Truth is: Fincher has made a work of art so precious that we’re all entitled to pure personal reactions, an occasion so rare in contemporary cinema that it must be protected and celebrated. For now, I’m content in chewing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button over some more and anticipating a second viewing.


-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.24.2008

Screened on: 12.13.2008 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA.


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