Monday, January 5, 2009

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The new collaboration of genius director David Fincher (who directed the marvelous Fight Club, among many others), a short story by my favorite writer of all time F. Scott Fitzgerald, and some of my favorite actors Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton, certainly had me very excited. Add onto my own curiosity of the film, it is receiving major awards buzz and is likely to be nominated (if not win) best picture of the year at this years Oscars, if you believe those who predict such things. I can say this - I have seen better films already this year (and I haven't seen all of the Oscar hopefuls yet) and I imagine I will see better ones in the weeks to come. That is not to say Benjamin Button was a bad movie, that's the furthest from being correct. However it is a curious movie which left me all at once wowed and disappointed.

The story, is certainly one which merits a 3 hour running time. It is the story of Benjamin Button, who was deserted at birth on the steps of an old folks home run by a kindly African American woman named Queenie. Whereas the boys parents were frightened and disgusted by the boy, Queenie takes him in as her own, expecting he doesn't have long to live. The newborn Benjamin resembles an 80 year old arthritic dying man. And we soon learn that he is living his life in reverse. The story is told through the diary of Benjamin himself, read by the daughter of his dying love Daisy. As you can tell this is intriguing stuff, told in a bit of a sappy manner. The film chronicles the reverse life of Benjamin and the many people who come in and out of his very strange story. The mainstay is Daisy, whom Benjamin meets early on, and becomes his one true love. She weaves in and out as well, as they both struggle to cope with the fact that as one is growing older, one keeps growing younger. Also in the film are other lively and interesting characters including a tugboat captain who considers himself quite the artist, an old man who has been struck by lightening one too many times, a spys wife who longs for love and secretly desires to swim the english channel, Benjamin's dying and regretful father, and african who spent part of his life locked up in a zoo cage with animals, an elderly woman who sings opera precisely at the same time every morning, a kind piano teacher, a clock maker, a daughter who has never known her father, a hurricane, and a hummingbird. As you can see, there is a lot going on.

Although the film actually didn't seem overlong to me, regardless of the almost 3 hour run time, Benjamin Button surely didn't need all these side stories. The one that sticks out the most is the rowdy tugboat captain who introduces Benjamin to the sea and the pleasures of a womanly kind. A young (old) Benjamin joins the crew and stays with them for the middle part of the film, which allows him to go to war and fight in the navy - none of this lends itself to the core of the film, which I believe is the love story between Benjamin and Daisy. In fact, the love story suffers from all the side stories, in my humble opinion. All stories have a begining, a middle, and an end: in Benjamin Button we get ONLY that. We see when Benjamin meets Daisy. They are children, obviously very different, but have an odd connection. We don't really know why Daisy befriends a 3 foot tall elderly looking man in a wheel chair, but she does. Then we see Benjamin pursue Daisy in New York, as she has grown older and become quite the dancer. Here Daisy is cold and even cruel to Benjamin, she is full of herself and barely lets him get a word in. Yet he still wants her, why we do not know for sure. Then we meet them again in the later stages of a relationship where it seems they truly fall in love (this is mostly in montage format so we just see them move in together, see them make love, see them interact .. we dont really know why). And then, worried about the prospect of the soon to be born child of their romantic trysts Benjamin leaves again, afraid of fatherhood as he knows he will resort back into a child. He leaves so easy - so fast, in the middle of the night with only a note on the vanity. Daisy doesn't chase after him, she merely watches him leave. You would think a love that breaks all barriers (which the film has set it up to be) would at least put up a fight as yet again one of them walks out. It is a muddy depiction at best. This is my biggest problem with the film, because being a film about love - it surely doesn't radiate much emotion.

However, outside of that storyline, there are some true gems in Benjamin Button. For example the relationship between Queenie (Taraj P. Hensen) and Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is quite touching. I don't know anyone that could sit in the theatre when Benjamin returns home to his mother from the long trip on the sea, and not smile from ear to ear. The first half of the film is leaps and bounds the best aspect of the film. As Benjamin grows up (grows younger) he meets his most interesting characters. The elderly people in the nursing home all bring something interesting to the table and to his life. And when he ventures out to sea and is stuck in a hotel, the movies most intriguing story takes place. (Note: I love Tilda Swinton, and my love for this section of the movie is only due in a very small part to her wonderful addition to the screen) Benjamin meets Elizabeth Abbott, a lonely wife who is married to a Russian spy. He meets her in the hotel lobby and they strike up quite the secret affair. It begins with late night escapes to the kitchen for tea, and then heightens as they enjoy caviar and vodka, and tell each other their wants and desires. Here Daisy is gone, the stories of the sea are put on pause, and we get a movie within a movie. I honestly believe the story of Benjamin and Elizabeth could have been a movie on its own, and a good one at that. However the story is allotted to about 20 minutes of screen time.

The acting all around is superb. The film couldn't breathe without the fantastic performance of Brad Pitt. Here he is truly at his best. The art of being subtle is one that many actors have troubles with, but Brad says so much throughout the film without uttering many words. And when an actor creates a living and breathing portrait from under old age makeup and CGI, it is truly a special performance. He is the life behind the film, and gives the best performance. Cate Blanchett is one of my favorite actresses and will never turn in a bad performance, however in this film she was rather irritating at times. Over an hour into the film, I couldn't stand Daisy. So much so that I leaned over to Nicholas and said: "I hate her". However she grew on me as the film went on. And as Daisy aged into the old woman on the bed that narrates most of the film, I came around and loved Cate again. The supporting players are all good with special exception to Taraj P Hensen and Tilda Swinton, who are extremely memorable and likeable. (This is honestly one of Tilda's most likeable performances ever).

Lastly, I couldn't help but compare this film to another best picture winner of the past. Forrest Gump. So much so that I believe the film could be renamed The Curious Case of Benjamin Gump. Lets look at the comparisons: Outcast lead, rebellious yet loveavle love interest, kind mother, shrimp boat vs. tug boat, the war, a child, etc etc. Although I think "Button" is the better film, it does fall into those very cliche corny pratfalls that made me dislike "Gump". At times it has the made for tv movie feel to it. The use of the hummingbird at 2 pivitol moments almost made me want to scream aloud (I won't ruin it for you), and Daisy on her deathbed I felt was a little overdramatic and uninteresting way to tell the story. For such an original piece of material I found this a stereotype of the "epic" film which Oscar loves. However there are those moments in Benjamin Button that are truly magic. The CGI work all around is magical, the acting phenomenal, and the scene where an old Daisy rocks infant Benjamin to sleep very well may be one of the most powerful images on screen this year or any other.

Although it was not a huge success for me, it truly had moments that warrant it the attention it is getting. But overall, as a film, I think it fell victim to the "Show instead of tell" method of filmmaking. I felt I saw too much, and didn't quite understand why the connections in the film were as strong as they seemed. It's certainly one for you to see for yourself, as Nicholas loved it. Maybe I'm out of the loop, but for now, I will call this an overrated almost masterpiece.

*** out of *****

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