The Curious Case of Benjamin Button review by Tom Blain
One of the most talked about movies this December (with respect to award buzz) is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I really had only medium interest in seeing the movie until I remembered that it was directed by one of my favorite stylish directors, David Fincher. Up until that point, I had figured that it would be the type of cookie cutter, heart grabbing dramas, with a lavish syrupy-toned score by either Hans Zimmer or even worse, Alan Silvestri. But with David Finchers name attached, there is an awkward imbalance. Finchers most heart-warming film to date is probably Panic Room and I only say that because if you count backwards from the darkly violent Seven, Zodiac, and Fight Club you arent left with much more than Alien 3 and The Game. At least Panic Room has a mother/daughter relationship. And anyone that has seen Panic Room knows thats a huge stretch. The CURIOUS in the title to me meant How will David Fincher tell a heart warming story without dissecting a serial killer?
Curious Item #2: The idea for Benjamin Button came from a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name. This also came as a surprise until I thought back to my own personal library where I do have a compilation with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button conveniently scribed. Since the short story came first on a true timeline, Ill go ahead and give a summary of Fitzgeralds Button first: Benjamin Button is born an old geezer, and in his hospital crib he is the size of a little old man. He also speaks the same day he is born proving that he has the mind to match the age of his body. Benjamin is raised by his parents and takes over his fathers company after being rejected by Yale due to his age. He marries a girl of 20 that he falls in love with when he is 50. Her name is Hildegarde Montcreif (not surprised to see that the name of his love interest was altered for the film). The story pays little attention to the actual romance between the two, and they even separate when Benjamin becomes an age when he is no longer attracted to her. As Benjamin grows younger (teenage), his own son begins to despise him for the societal burden he places on the family. Benjamins grandson grows into kindergarten age as Benjamin grows into kindergarten age and then finally he un-ages into death.
Fitzgerald took his inspiration for the story from a Mark Twain comment that rang to the tune of it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end." Fincher seems to take a decidedly different turn with his Button. In his movie, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born an unwanted freak in early 20th century New Orleans. His father drops him off on the front door of an nursing home, where he is eventually raised by one of the caretakers. Another distinction between book and film is that while Benjamins body is that of an old man, his mind is not. He experiences life as if he was a child early on, and then later explores the world like a young man in his 20s.
His life from a young age is shadowed by his love, soulmate Daisy (Cate Blanchett), much in the same way that Forrest Gumps life is shadowed by his childhood love Jenny. They meet at the nursing home and form an odd bond (Daisy is apparently strong enough to befriend the scary old-man-child). Benjamin has eyes on her from the start as they grow physically in reverse. They split apart and go on their own personal journeys but always seem to come back together every few years. Where as in Fitzgeralds book this character (Hildegarde/Daisy) is treated with Benjamins love for only a 20-year window and then discarded, the film is more fairy-tale-like, kicking off their connection from early on and even into later years (without spoiling too much).
The Daisy character in the movie is also a great improvement, and without her the movie might not be quite as enjoyable. Blanchett and the script do an outstanding job of molding and developing a consistent character that stumbles, grows, and maintains a certain aura of personality throughout the entire film. The same cant be said, unfortunately, for our title character. When Daisy reveals her soul, Benjamin seems to stand and stair like a statue, offering up a few chestnuts of dime-store wisdom at times. After a few awkward scenes I began to wonder why Daisy was even attracted to Benjamin. At first I attributed this to Brad Pitts lack of dramatic acting ability (I usually like his films where he is either a bit more comical like Oceans 11 or manic and crazy like Kalifornia), but in all fairness, Im not sure the script made a strong enough character for Benjamin Button between the ages of 20-50. There simply wasnt much dialogue to keep him interesting and give him much of a character outside of the whole look at me I age funny! And regarding Pitt's performance, I often enjoyed how his physical performance not only matched his physical age but also his mental age.
Another fault with the script was the unnecessary Hurricane Katrina reference during the flash-forwards. The same story could have been told with or without the impending doom of Katrina which doesnt add any more urgency to move the narrative forward. It just creates an odd distraction.
Fincher remains true to his form though and delivers a film with many dark images, even if there arent menacing bad guys hidden in the shadows. His use of stylized natural low light to create mood works as well in drama as it does in thriller and works particularly well in the sepia-toned city of New Orleans where everything feels just a little bit worn and antique even in the early 20th century. A consistent theme of chance and random occurrence seems to persist through this film which is also in some of his earlier films, although the hints and references (i.e. clock maker, man who is struck seven times by lightning) feel a bit more blatant. These are more reminsicnent of P.T. Anderson's Magnolia with Ricky Jay story-telling intro, than they do with say the Zodiac killers victims or selecting the right path in the human mouse trap of The Game.In fact, the comparisons to certain aspects of Magnolia (previous supernatural tales of chance, use of silent film techniques) are strikingly similar.
Overall I did like Benjamin Button for its mood, Blanchetts outstanding performance, Finchers camera work, and some loving shots of New Orleans, despite a few story telling flaws. It does improve the odd short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (which is one of his most creative ideas however, not best story) but, just not as much as I would have liked.
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
IMDB Link: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
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