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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)


  • Review: **** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Elle Fanning, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Taraji P. Henson, Phyllis Somerville, Julia Ormond, Faune A. Chambers, Elias Koteas, Donna DuPlantier, Jason Flemyng, Joeanna Sayler
  • Director: David Fincher
  • Screenplay: Eric Roth, Robin Swicord
  • Length: 166 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking.

What can living life in reverse tell us about ourselves and our history? The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows life as it flows forwards and backwards in the life of its title character.

Opening in a hospital room in New Orleans, set shortly before Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of that historic city, an elderly woman (Cate Blanchett) holds desperately to life as she tells her daughter (Julia Ormond) about a blind clockmaker whose son was killed in World War I and the large clock he made that would forever tick backwards. Setting it all in motion, her daughter begins reading to her from the diary of Benjamin Button, a man who was born on the brink of death.

Aged, elderly and on his death bed, young Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was abandoned on the footsteps of an retirement home whereupon the black proprietress, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), stumbles onto him and decides to take him in despite doctors saying the child may not have long to live. Contrary to expectations, he lives and grows like most children, except as he does so, he becomes younger, not older and experiences life through an entirely different prism of experience.

It is in his early years that he meets a young girl whose grandmother has come to live at the home while she awaits the end of her life. Daisy (Elle Fanning), played in adulthood by Cate Blanchett, becomes his friend and together, they share all the common joys of childhood in spite of his apparent advanced age.

The story progresses from the Post World War II era, all the way through the hippie movement of the 1960s and into the modern age as framed by Blanchett’s bed-ridden performance. As Benjamin gets younger and begins to realize he’s fallen in love with Daisy, the story takes on the characteristics of many era-spanning romantic epics filled with poignancy, war and happiness.

As a framing device, the New Orleans-set events feel a bit out of touch, but when the final scene rolls, you understand fully why it was so important. It is not an uncommon device in many such stories and thus doesn’t feel too terribly out of place. And, unlike many other such techniques used in such films, it is touched upon frequently and the story is propelled forward instead of being used briefly and often for only a portion of the film and then virtually ignored for the remainder.

The performances are mostly all accomplished. Blanchett is at her most subdued, which works exceedingly well for her character. During one scene where she explains why so many lose the line of their body that makes them graceful dancers, her simple expressions convey volumes of emotion and regret.

Brad Pitt plays his part, as I believe the director expects: low key and somewhat emotionally detached. His experiences aren’t as rich or developed as one might have anticipated or as many might have desired, but it’s clear he is playing the role as a physical participant, but emotional observer. He looks at life as an experiment and a playground wherein all his experiences help him understand the world around him and tacitly the people in his life.

Much of the film’s style is rooted in the history of film. Blending in iconic imagery and scenery, it seems as if director David Fincher is making the film as much an exploration of life as a historical lesson in filmmaking. It is similar in that regard to The Aviator, but a bit more subtle, relying less on filming styles (such as two-strip Technicolor) and more on individual images. This is most exemplified in Henson’s performance. Her character is a complete homage of the motherly black figures often displayed in old movies, most reminiscent of Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind.

Tilda Swinton delivers the best of the supporting characterizations in her role as Elizabeth Abbott, a sophisticated, and bored, spy’s wife who relieves her boredom in the lobby of a hotel with Benjamin instead of spending it in the bed of her boorish husband. Her exceedingly brief scenes are marvelously acted, evoking all of the great leading ladies of the past with elegance and grace. Her personification of these ideals mixed with her unconventional beauty make for one of the film’s most complex and endearing characters.

Screenwriter Eric Roth went to great lengths to avoid any comparison to his 1994 Best Picture winner Forrest Gump, despite telling a similar story about an emotionally-stunted man living through some of American history’s most important events. Thankfully, Benjamin never meets anyone truly famous, which allows us to be more involved with his story than being in awe of the context.

The pacing of the film is a bit slow, and when exploring such a wide expanse of history, one would expect things to move a bit more quickly. However, much like David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, the film takes its time exploring the emotional experiences of its characters and ultimately allowing love to take its time instead of being a force one quickly jumps into. In that regard, the pace is perfectly reasonable.

But, the truly magnificent aspects of the film are with the technicals. The gorgeous cinematography takes the brilliant hues of the art direction and costume design and keeps them crisp, enveloping the viewer in the world of Benjamin Button. The tones are rich when necessary and subdued when appropriate. It’s as if the canvas of the movie screen is a living character of its own. The makeup effects are strong and the visual effects are even stronger, seeing Pitt as he was in his days as a young actor in Hollywood is a rather startling thing, but it works tremendously well. Add the subtle sound mixing into the work and the lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, you have a film that’s breathtaking to watch, a suitable distraction for when things are moving more slowly than desired.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is as easy to love as it is to hate. Pitt’s seeming lack of emotional depth, brought about most likely from life in an elderly home where developing an emotional attachment is a dangerous and heartbreaking prospect, can leave some feeling quite cold. However, this is only titularly Benjamin Button’s story. In reality, this is Daisy’s story. She’s telling of her love and life against that of Benjamin’s. It is to her we are supposed to be most emotionally connected. Her life, in many aspects revolved around his and it is through his experience and his diary that Daisy finally comes to understand who and what Benjamin was and how much he meant to her.