Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A melancholy but intermittently enchanting fairy tale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is certainly a flawed work that struggles to coalesce around a central theme, but nonetheless succeeds on the strength of its mood, performances, and the clever idea at the center.

For those who live beneath rocks, the titular character in Benjamin Button literally lives his life backwards, being born a shriveled geriatric and then growing younger by the day, into middle age, then a young man, then finally into a child and a baby. We follow his entire life through most of the 1900s, particularly when he crosses paths with his true love / soul mate Daisy (whose name I'll assume is a Great Gatsby reference). That Benjamin Button smells a lot like Forrest Gump is no surprise seeing as the two films share a screenwriter, and it's similarly engaging as a kind of whirlwind tour through American history, albeit with a more interesting gimmick for our protagonist.

The movie wouldn't work if the central romance between Benjamin and Daisy didn't enchant, but it does thanks to the talent and ethereal beauty of Cate Blanchett. She brings class and elegance to everything she touches. Brad Pitt does fairly good work too, although everyone knows Pitt is at his best when he plays crazy; Button is more of a blank slate. The third star of the film is the makeup and special effects work that's used to range both Blanchett and Pitt's ages from teens / early twenties to elderly, and some of it is pretty stunning, particularly the de-aging effects. Pitt looks like he did in Thelma & Louise again near the end of the film, and the "teen" Blanchett is uncanny.

Where the film struggles is in trying to impart deeper ideas beyond its plot. It seems to be trying to make powerful statements about death, love, and the randomness of life, but no idea ever really takes shape beyond the ephemeral. The only theme the movie imparts in the end seems to be "live life to its fullest!", which, while perfectly good advice, didn't really need to be told via the story of a backwards-aging man. The enjoyable aspect of the film is what's plain on the surface; the love story and the backwards-aging scenario.

It's also a little overlong, marching towards three hours. David Fincher is a GREAT director, make no mistake, but in a career where all of the highlights are dark, twisted, intense crime stories with plot twists and pitch-black humor (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, etc.), maudlin fairy tale is something entirely outside of his comfort zone and perhaps specific skill set, and he occasionally overcompensates by mistaking slowness for emotional resonance. Slightly more judicious editing probably could have harmlessly sliced twenty minutes from the final cut.

So ultimately, I admit that I would have rather seen The Wrestler, The Dark Knight, or even Gran Torino taking Benjamin Button's place as Best Picture nominee (not that it matters, since it obviously won't win, but as they say, it's an honor just to be nominated). I do however see it as a fine fairy tale; overrated, much as Forrest Gump was back in 1994, but like Gump a likable movie nonetheless.

3 Stars out of 5

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