, 166 min, 2008
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Eric Roth (screenplay), Eric Roth (story) and Robin Swicord (story), F. Scott Fitzgerald (short story)
Stars: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton
David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a winsome, epic fairy tale, a bittersweet romance, a fantastical voyage of discovery, and a sad tale of a rather extraordinary life. It’s also pure, unabashed Oscar-bait.
At the end of World War I, Benjamin Button was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. His birth killed his mother and shocked his father (Jason Flemyng) because he was born looking like an old man in a newborn’s body. Benjamin’s father, unable to drown him as he’d planned, took him to an old-folks home run by a sweet, sassy young African-American woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Unable to have children of her own, she chooses to raise Benjamin “for a short while.” To everyone’s astonishment, Benjamin eventually grows into a full-grown old man (played from this point forward by Brad Pitt).
Benjamin begins to age in reverse over the years, living out his days in that old folks’ home, and has a life-changing experience when he meets Daisy, the sweet young granddaughter of one of the residents. He falls for her immediately, because they’re about the same age – he just looks decades older. Eventually, Benjamin overcomes cataracts, a crippling in his legs, learns to walk, and is soon quite spry for an older gentleman. Before anyone can believe it, he’s leaving home and going on an adventure.
As a slightly “younger” older man he spends the beginnings of the Depression as a hire-on for a freighter run by the heavily-drinking Scotsman Captain Mike (Jared Harris), who will eventually take Benjamin to his first brothel – resulting in life-changing sex, apparently. These seaward excursions will lead to a World War II battle and a seemingly endless sojurn to Russia, where Benjamin falls for the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British spy; they have a sweet but brief affair. However, always in his mind and heart is Daisy (eventually played by Cate Blanchett), now a profoundly successful dancer in New York. Will Benjamin eventually age backward enough to meet at roughly the same age as Daisy somewhere in the middle so they can have a relationship? Did you pay your price of admission?
David Fincher is a visionary, stylistically-gifted director prone to shadows and mystery (The Game), in love with grit and grime (Se7en), not above neat visual tricks (Panic Room), always a dab hand at violence (Fight Club, Zodiac); what drew him to this material is anyone’s guess. Working with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, what Fincher shows here is that he hasn’t lost his touch; one sequence about Daisy’s fate as a dancer is a mesmerising and profound illustration of the “butterfly effect.” The visual effects are always quite convincing and the makeup effects on both Pitt and Blanchett set some kind of new standard; curiously, the first little girl who plays Daisy (Elle Fanning, turns out) looks like a computer generated image to me.
The screenplay by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider) is an adaptation (to say the least) of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), transmutating what is essentially a small comic fable into a 166-minute film. The film doesn’t fly by, but after a rocky start it draws you in and hardly ever loosens its grip. It takes seemingly ungainly material, what could’ve been quite morose, and paints it in splendid visual terms while trying to render it as heartwarming and thoughtfully as possible, not without a scintilla of humor (there’s a great running gag with an old-timer at Benjamin’s home telling him about how he was struck by lightning 7 times).
This is not to say the film doesn’t have its flaws: It takes a while to “get started,” as I hinted at before. If there’s a flaw in the story, it’s the attempt to soften and alter Fitzgerald’s original imagery and its implications for a modern audience (in the short story, Benjamin is born as a full-grown old man and grows younger and shorter until he’s a bottle-fed baby).
Here, Fincher and Roth have created a fantastically-tilted elegy, not unlike Roth’s screenplay for Robert Zemeckis’Forrest Gump (1994), which also depicted a sweet man with difficult cirumstances which dictate the events in his life and the paths he must take, though not in quite such somber terms. For Benjamin, he seems to see life as lucky given the fact he wasn’t supposed to live much past birth, takes advantage as best he can of his opportunities to make the most out of life, but seems to see the passage of time as a sad reminder of the inevitability of death and how different he is from his loved ones.
The film also has an almost needless framing device set during the brunt of Hurricane Katrina, with an elderly Daisy in the hospital asking her grown daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read Benjamin’s diary. Besides this framing device being the snail-paced starting point of the film, it proves to be a futile exercise in melodrama meant to drum up some suspense for a foregone conclusion; you will have already guessed what Caroline is supposed to learn about 10-15 minutes before she reads it. Julia Ormond’s task is thankless, but she heroically attempts to play her part nevertheless.
Indeed, the entire cast is top-notch: Pitt recalls some of the mercurial qualities of his performance in Martin Brest’sMeet Joe Black (1998); Blanchett is lovely to behold as Daisy, who is forever trying to get Benjamin to express his love for her when he isn’t receptive, and is seldom on his wave-length when he is; Henson (Hustle & Flow) is a life force as the woman who raised Benjamin; Flemyng is heartfelt as the regretful father who spited his son; Harris is very amusing as the clueless drunk ship captain; Swinton is her usual cold but intriguing self as a woman who inexplicably and unexpectedly finds romance and lust in the least likely of places – and people.
In dealing with its “profound” themes of life, death, fate and unusual circumstances, the film this wants to be is Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. It isn’t – quite. It is a very good, splendidly well-made and intriguing attempt at a modern epic romance. As such, it more or less succeeds.
Footnote: The film was nominated for 13 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress (Henson), Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography. It won for Visual Effects, Art Direction and Makeup.