REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [2008]

“It was nice to have met you”

It’s an unlikely source, but an effective one—David Fincher giving us a heartbreaking tale of love discovered, lost, found, and forever enduring. The man responsible for bringing to screen the ultra-sick mind of a serial killer in Seven, the warped sensibilities of Chuck Palahniuk with Fight Club, and the dark streets of a city in fear with Zodiac has crafted a beautifully lyrical film of love and its always-difficult journey. Based on a short story from F. Scott Fitzgerald, screenwriter Eric Roth has taken the premise and random details of plot to create something wholly new. While the original story is full of cynicism and hate, a reverse ugly duckling tale as Ben Button becomes a whipping boy his entire life except for maybe a decade in the middle, the film adaptation is one of beating all odds and making the best of a life that will inevitably end tragically. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s titular character is still afflicted with the same ailment, born a child with an 80-year-old’s body, aging younger as he grows older, yet the “disease” is worked with and overcome. His life moves forward, as his body moves backwards, towards an existence he always dreamed of having, but knew he would never be able to keep.

It’s all handled nicely for a film that reaches close to a three-hour runtime. A story told in flashback, Cate Blanchett’s Daisy is close to death and visited by her daughter Caroline in the midst of Hurricane Katrina when the tale begins. (This fact is my only real questionable call, as I don’t see the reasoning … perhaps having began on the day WWI ended and ending on a day of tragedy in Louisiana is supposed to be cyclical? Either way, I don’t think it was necessary, yet it doesn’t distract, so I don’t mind it.) Daisy wishes to be read to from a diary that she was never able to read herself, the memoirs of Benjamin Button, her one true love. The words being read serve as both a remembrance and validation to the dying woman as well as a truth telling towards the daughter, opening her eyes to the past, a life she never knew about. Benjamin is very candid in his remarks, telling the details of a very uniquely special existence while also the feelings he had for Daisy, a woman he met at age five and eventually met again in the middle, bringing a smile to her face knowing how he felt even way back then.

As any love story shows, it is not always easy. Meeting as a five year old girl and a five-year-old boy who looked eighty—easy was never in the cards. These two children struck a bond that would prove very difficult to break, despite love affairs, broken bones, hurt egos, or thousands of miles in between. Both lived very different lives, arcs that crossed yet never intersected. They needed to experience what was coming to them before they could be ready to finally see each other for the soul mates they were. It is an arduous journey full of eccentric people and events to spice up the action as we wait for the inevitable reunion. Ben Button sees it all: living in a home for the care of the elderly, (“Death was a common visitor”); sailing with the artist and drunk Captain Mike, (the always entertaining Jared Harris); having an affair with the wife of a British ambassador, Elizabeth Abbott, (a wonderful Tilda Swinton); and an upbringing by a poor black woman, (Taraji P. Henson stealing scenes and proving yet again that she will be working for a long time), with the intermittent visits from a kind gentleman seeking conversation, (Jason Flemyng without a trace of his usual strong English accent). It’s a full life that always ends up with the thoughts of a little girl, all “elbows and knees”, who grows into a beautiful NYC dancer, into a woman for whom only tragedy could awaken her true self, shaking the self-pity and pretentiousness away.

The story is strong, allowing for performances that excel at all turns. It may tread into sentimentality at times, but never to the point where it becomes a detriment. Ben Button’s life is always going to eventually end as it began, in reverse. Like the clock built by Elias Koteas’s Monsieur Gateau, a timepiece that ticked backwards as a symbol for all those who have died too young in war, possibly allowing them to be brought back to life, Button’s life is ever moving forward with its back against the wall. His twilight years already passed, old age becomes youth—a youth full of the death of loved ones, a youth that can only be lived alone so as not to cause pain for those you wish to live freely. But as a woman says to him early on, “we’re meant to lose the people we love … how else will we know how important they are?”

I think a lot of credit falls deservedly so onto the shoulders of Cate Blanchett and especially Brad Pitt. Known more for his looks and succeeding on charisma rather than talent, this is the first truly great performance I’ve seen from him as a “normal” guy, (pitch-perfect crazies like in 12 Monkeys don’t apply). With a deliberate New Orleans speech and minimal movement, Pitt’s Button goes through life cautiously and optimistically. He gets stronger and more resilient as the years go by, giving him a young appearance to hide the aged wisdom behind his eyes. And the special effect work to make it all possible is absolutely mind-blowing. How much is prosthetics and how much computer generated, I don’t know, but the aging processes for all are seamless. Even getting heights, weights, and skin smoothness correct, these actors grow and age with visual wonderment. And with gorgeous cinematography to frame it all, there is very little to dislike.

With that said, there was just something missing for me. Much like last year’s There Will Be Blood, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is technically sound and emotionally moving, yet there was still a void unfilled once I left the theatre. David Fincher has crafted a masterpiece that should stand the test of time and I’m sure will be loved by many, but similar to his great work on Zodiac, while wonderful, it just isn’t perfect to me. Again, though, that is just my opinion and I strongly recommend you go see this beautiful piece of cinema, because it is one of the year’s best and I can’t wait to revisit the world in the future, possibly changing my mind and becoming the masterpiece I know it could be.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

photography:
[1] Cate Blanchett stars as Daisy and Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button in Paramount Pictures’ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Taraji P. Henson stars as Queenie and Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button in Paramount Pictures’ The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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