by Mel Valentin
There comes a time in every filmmaker’s career (and by filmmaker, an authorial or auteurist vision is implied), when he or she has acquired the freedom, through a mix of commercial and critical success (mostly the former, of course) to make any film he or she wants to make. It’s at that point that many filmmakers, secretly or not so secretly harboring a desire to make “art,” run aground on their own ambition and hubris. When word of the running time for David Fincher’s ("]Zodiac," "Panic Room," "The Game," "Se7en") latest film, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," slipped into the cyber-ether (it runs a potentially bloated two hours and 47 minutes), it looked liked Fincher, one of, if not the most, talented visual stylist in his generation, had crossed into the land of self-important, self-indulgent filmmaking, a land where many filmmakers venture, but few return.The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the opposite of self-important or self-indulgent. It’s a wrenching, poignant exploration of mortality, its beginning, its middle, and, of course, its end, handled with rare, maudlin-free sensitivity and an eye and ear for the transcendent in the transient. A birth-to-death tale told in reverse, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shifts from the deathbed confession of an elderly woman, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), to her adult daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), to excerpts from the diary of the titular character, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). Born in New Orleans, Louisiana on the same day as the Great War (World War I) ends in Europe, Benjamin is an anomaly: his wizened face and shrunken limbs strike fear and revulsion in his father, Thomas (Jason Flemyng), the owner of a button factory, Button’s Buttons, who promptly abandons the infant Benjamin at a retirement home run by an African-American woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Rather than see Benjamin as a monster or a mistake, Queenie opens her heart to him and becomes his surrogate mother.
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Although Benjamin physically and mentally grows, he’s still an “old child.” He needs glasses to see and wheelchair to get around in. Despite his physical appearance, he’s still a child, at least mentally. Because of his physical appearance, however, he fits into the life and rhythms of the nursing home. As Benjamin ages backwards, he grows taller, trades in the wheelchair for crutches (and eventually no crutches at all), and one day meets the granddaughter (Elle Fanning) of one of the nursing home’s residents. In time, the girl grows up to become Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of Benjamin’s life, but Benjamin’s age proves to be barrier to a long-term romantic relationship, first because he’s too old and later, because he’s too young. Even then Benjamin’s life is full of adventures, small and large, from the personal (his first drink, the first time having sex, his first, lost love), to the global (the second world war).
Great art, even not-so-great, minor art looks at the familiar with unfamiliar eyes and there’s no better way to describe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: an unfamiliar way of looking at the personal, universal experiences of life, death, love (gained and lost), and all the moments in between. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t, however, sentimental or maudlin. Under Fincher’s evenhanded, unobtrusive direction, even something as potentially clichéd as a rosy dawn becomes a moment to celebrate the wonder and awe inherent in nature, but more importantly, sharing that experience with someone else. It’s that, style and imagery in service of a story, characters, and themes that really make The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fincher deserves praise, as do his production designer, Donald Graham Burt, makeup artists, cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, the composer, Alexandre Desplat (Lust, Caution, The Painted Veil, The Queen, Syriana), and, of course, the visual effects artists at Digital Domain for their seamlessly integrated contributions.
Screenwriter Eric Roth (The Good Shepherd, Munich, Ali, The Insider, The Horse Whisperer, The Postman, Forrest Gump) also deserves considerable credit for melding F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fantastical short story, expanding and deepening the story’s themes and ideas, and giving voice to Benjamin Button through his diary entries) and Daisy through her deathbed confessional. Benjamin’s reminisces and observations could have easily descended into faux profundity or repetition, but never does. There’s also almost nothing more clichéd than a deathbed confessional, yet the scenes involving Daisy and her daughter are handled with subtlety and sensitivity. Roth weaves the present-day scenes (actually August 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina was about to hit New Orleans) with Button’s recollections deftly (Roth makes it look easier than it really is).And then, of course, we come to the performances in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." It won’t come as a surprise that Cate Blanchett’s as good here as she’s ever been, convincingly conveying Daisy as a self-centered twenty-three year old (makeup helped too) to a women in her thirties, forties, and on through the end of her life and Benjamin’s. Brad Pitt doesn’t stray far from his comfort zone, but he leaves the usual mannerisms that accompany his onscreen persona offscreen. Part of that is due to the old-age makeup and the technical wizardry necessary to “sell” Benjamin as an “old child,” but part of that is a deliberate choice on his part too. There isn’t a bad or mediocre performance in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Fincher deserves credit for that, both in casting and in directing the actors. Then again, we shouldn’t expect anything less with Fincher involved, at least not anymore.
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originally posted: 12/25/08 11:00:00