Languid and epic, if perhaps not as curious

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

on November 25, 2008 by Mark Keizer
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Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie share a profession, a bottomless vial of hotness and a battery of kids, but there’s something else they share: a passion for literary material long considered unfilmable. Jolie has been trying for years to launch a big-screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist bible Atlas Shrugged. The project, whose source material is over 1,000 pages, has suffered more false starts than a drunken track meet. So Pitt, whose good looks and tabloid ubiquity obscure his Oscar-nominated acting talent, wins the couple’s Impossible Adaptation Contest (loser buys the winner a continent) with this long-awaited big screen version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story from 1922. Fitzgerald’s tale chronicles a man who is born elderly and ages backwards, until he dies at birth when “his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.” Few directors could have tackled the film’s daunting visual requirements as brilliantly as David Fincher ( Zodiac ) has. But emotionally, Fincher’s movies are always cool to the touch and this one is no different. The lack of convincing emotional sweep blunts the impact of an otherwise marvelous picture. Expect solid numbers at the outset, followed by fans gobbling up the DVD to learn how Fincher’s amazing team earned the Visual Effects Oscar that is undoubtedly coming their way.

Benjamin Button’s decades-spanning, cradle-to-grave timeframe recalls 1994’s Best Picture Oscar winner Forrest Gump, so it’s fitting (if a bit obvious) that the script would be assigned to Gump screenwriter Eric Roth. The writer (who also penned The Insider and Munich ) has retained very little of Fitzgerald’s original story, save for the main character’s alliterative name and the aging-backwards concept. And it’s a testament to our involvement in the story that our attention is not eaten up by wondering how they’ll make Brad Pitt look 70 years old. We accept it at the character level, not critique it on a technology level. In Fitzgerald’s story, Benjamin enters the world as a fully grown, elderly man, complete with beard and full vocabulary. In a major departure from the source material (one of many smart departures), Benjamin is born a baby, but one suffering from arthritis, cataracts and other ravages of age. Benjamin’s horrified father (Jason Flemyng) places the newborn on the doorstep of a New Orleans rest home, where he’s accepted (“he looks just like my ex-husband” says one of the old ladies) and raised by Queenie (wonderful Taraji P. Henson) an African-American employee. Benjamin spends his childhood at the home, where he drinks in the wisdom of the aged residents, learns to walk with the help of a faith healer and meets Daisy, the pre-teen granddaughter of a rest home live-in who’ll become the defining presence of his life.

Considering what the part required, Pitt’s performance is amazingly unadorned and natural, to the point where it’s easy to overlook the achievement. Using motion capture technology, he plays Benjamin across the decades, from a bald and bespectacled, wheelchair-bound ten-year old, to a youthful, fresh-faced old man. In between, he embodies one of the film’s major themes: how the human experience will always contain joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, whether you age forwards or backwards. “It really does not make a difference,” Benjamin says, “as long as we’ve lived our lives well.” And appropriately, his condition neither compounds, nor spares him, life’s difficulties. During World War II, Benjamin serves on a tugboat (echoes of Forrest Gump ’s shrimp boat, save for the exciting battle against an enemy sub), then travels to New York, where Daisy (Cate Blanchett, from young adulthood forward) has become a ballerina and is currently dating another dancer. Eventually, Benjamin and Daisy meet at that crucial moment when their ages match and their desire peaks.

As Daisy, Blanchett makes sizable dents in the masculine layers of Fincher’s style and provides some warmth to a picture lacking in such. This is no small thing, since Fincher’s heretofore most successful stab at character-driven emotion was Pitt’s reaction to seeing Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box at the end of Se7en. Not surprising for this most wonderful of actors, Blanchett does exceptional work wearing old age makeup. Benjamin’s story is told in flashback as the elderly Daisy lay dying in a New Orleans hospital while her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads Benjamin’s secret diary. Roth, whose script features none of the sentimentality of Forrest Gump, even manages to work in Hurricane Katrina, as another reminder of nature’s cruel indifference. Straying way off Fitzgerald’s blueprint, Roth also supplies a couple of brilliant interludes, none better than his take on how fate can depend upon a succession of tiny events involving random people that must line up with a watchmaker’s precision. He also tempers the story’s inherent magical realism with sobering doses of reality that bring into relief the underlying uniqueness of Benjamin’s existence. Indeed, although Roth worked off existing texts for both Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump, the former is the more impressive achievement. Yet Fincher still can’t convey a strong enough sense that Benjamin and Daisy are fated to be together yet destined to be apart. The sepia-colored footage, rich production design (by Donald Graham Burt) and simple, beautiful score (by Alexandre Desplat) can’t paper over an epic romance that just isn’t epic enough. Benjamin is just too accepting of his life for the audience to respond to him with overwhelming reserves of empathy. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe in his quest for experience and his capacity for love, Benjamin Button’s case wasn’t really curious at all.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
Screenplay: Eric Roth; based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Director: David Fincher
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Cean Chaffin
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking
Running time: 167 minutes
Release date: December 25, 2008

Tags: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Eric Roth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Fincher, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Cean Chaffin, Zodiac, Paramount, aging
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