Friday, February 20, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas
Running Time: 165 min.

Rating: PG-13

**** (out of ****)

Whenever I see a list of the year’s upcoming releases and a David Fincher film is on the slate I’m always prepared to clear a very high spot on my year-end top 10 just in case. Those who know me best think I’m incapable of objectively assessing his films. They're right. Had Fincher not directed a thriller called The Game in 1997 I wouldn’t be typing this review right now. Or any review. And I definitely wouldn’t be watching as many movies as I do now or come anywhere close to appreciating the work that goes into them. Everyone has the one film that started everything for them. That was mine.

12 years later we wait on the eve of the Oscars to find out just how many of its 13 nominations Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button can cash in on. A lot has been written and spoken about the film, nearly all of it false. The most popular (and ridiculous) accusation hurled its way is that it's a rip-off of Forrest Gump. While the two films share certain surface similarities and a screenwriter (Eric Roth), thematically the comparison doesn’t hold any water. This is a story about DEATH. Of your days passing you by before you have a chance to blink. Of missed opportunities and loneliness. Of feeling like you just don’t belong. Of watching everyone you love just fade away as you aimlessly move from one moment to the next.

For whatever reason, watching Fincher’s films have always been a deeply personal experience for me but this one really spoke to me. While it may seem odd to relate to a character that ages backwards I sometimes see myself in a state of regression, failing to keep pace with the outside world and too often a spectator in my own life. Who doesn't? So yes this film does feature a passive protagonist and that’s the point. There’s something wrong with him. He doesn’t fit. It's less Zemeckis, more Kubrick.

Mentioning Kubrick is apt not only because this is reminiscent of that legend’s best work but because both filmmakers have faced criticism that their approaches are cold and detached. Watching Fincher tackle big sweeping emotional material usually reserved for a more mainstream director is not unlike what happened in 2001 when Steven Spielberg carried out the late Kubrick’s long gestating dream project, A.I. The result was a bizarre, flawed but ultimately unforgettable a mix of both filmmaker’s sensibilities with Spielberg’s sentimentality (for better or worse) getting the final word. Say what you want about the film but it did push Spielberg to a place he hadn’t been before. Something similar happens here for Fincher's take on Roth's story, except this time the darkness wins out and the results are nearly flawless.

Argue all you want where it ranks with his greatest but it’s definitely the BIGGEST, both in scope and resonance and a technical achievement that won’t be matched anytime soon. It’s the only one of the five nominees for Best Picture that really feels like it could be a nominee in any year, not just a weak one. At nearly three hours long I wanted the film to go on even longer, dreading the moment the story and my time with this fascinating title character would end. And in a way it never really did. It engulfed me like a dream, which toward its final act resembled more of a nightmare. I clearly saw a film far different from everyone else and I can't wrap my head around why critics and audiences have reacted so unenthusiastically to it. Thankfully, the Academy completely ignored them.

Its August 2005 and as Hurricane Katrina is about to make landfall in New Orleans 80-year-old Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies on her deathbed with daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) by her side. Daisy has her read the diary of a man from her past named Benjamin Button. He was born in 1918 with the physical appearance of an old man, afflicted with a rare condition that causes him to age in reverse, growing younger with each passing year. His mother died during childbirth but his father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) abandons the baby of the steps of a nursing home, where he’s discovered and warmly taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). She views his arrival as a blessing and unable to conceive, raises the child as if he were her own.

It’s in his teenage years when he first meets young Daisy who he connects with in a special way but won’t see again until he’s left home and experienced life. That includes working on a tugboat off the docks of New Orleans with Captain Mike (insert requisite Lieutenant Dan joke here) played by Jared Harris,’ being enlisted by the Navy during World War II and falling in love with Elizabeth Abbott, a middle-aged British woman (Tilda Swinton) he encounters at a hotel. Through it all, whether together or not, there’s always one constant for Benjamin: Daisy. Their paths veer off in completely different directions as she starts a new life for herself in New York, yet they always seem to intertwine again, even if the timing isn’t always right. It’s when they finally “meet in the middle” that the film soars to its greatest heights and becomes a devastating meditation on love and mortality.

One moment could never sum up what a film means or measure its power but when this ended a montage stuck in my mind.. An accident befalls a character and Fincher flashes back, showing us all the little, seemingly meaningless events that had to fall perfectly into place for that event to occur. Had one of those tiny circumstances not happened, there's no accident and the paths of those involved would have been considerably altered. Life is a series of windows, opening and closing at very specific times, which can be a source of both joy and unbearable sadness. We have control over it…and we don’t. That’s life, and this film is rich with every little detail of it.

I underestimated just how affecting this premise would be having only a passing familiarity with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story from which it’s based. But you could tell a lot of hard work went into expanding and deepening the source material to bring it to the screen. I’ve rallied long and hard against the overuse of CGI in movies but this is how visual effects should be incorporated into films….TO ACTUALLY HELP TELL THE STORY. If the reverse aging is a “gimmick” then it’s a damn good one because I could think of few things that fascinated me more recently in a movie than analyzing where this protagonist was in his life, where he was going, and what age he was at in relation to those around him.

Benjamin’s situation not only informs his interactions with everyone, but in what has to be the most criminally overlooked aspect of the entire film, the condition itself seems real. I bet a lot of people would leave this film thinking that this fictitious disease, or at least something very similar to it, could exist, and not just in the pages of a science fiction magazine. That’s what Fincher brings to the table that no one else can and that’s what makes the film’s final hour so sad and scary. We’ve all seen plenty of characters die in movies before but has one ever left us like THAT? Pitt’s performance is reactive, which is something a lot of people seem to have a problem with but that’s what’s called for. His face and body may at times be buried under make-up and special effects but he never lets us lose touch with the humanity of Benjamin. One of the film’s most accomplished visual feats, beyond believably turning Pitt into an old man is having him appear toward the end of the film exactly as he did when he made his screen debut in Thelma and Louise.

While admiring Blanchett’s performance it occurred to me despite all the awards and accolades she constantly receives and how times she’s referenced the “best actress of her generation” we’ve never seen her in a role like Daisy. She’s really never been afforded the opportunity to play the unrequited, unattainable love interest for a protagonist in a film this size. Despite her obvious talent I doubt she’d jump out in most audience’s minds as their first choice to play opposite Pitt. Now it’s tough to imagine anyone else even trying it since the movie feels most alive when she shares the screen with him. Similarly buried under prosthetic make-up she's equally impressive in her deathbed scenes opposite Ormond as that present day aspect of the film just seems to increase in poignancy and power as Benjamin's story unravels.

Don’t count me among those who believe David Fincher specializes in making cold, sterile films devoid of any emotion. There's a lot of emotion in The Game, Fight Club and even Zodiac. So much more than they're given credit for. To some degree all his work has had an underlying theme of mortality but here the window dressing is a little different. It would have been another Forrest Gump under just about any other director but he turns it into something else entirely. Something more meaningful and lasting.

I also don't subscribe to the theory that the Academy is rewarding an accomplished filmmaker for one of his lesser efforts. Far from it. So much has to be absorbed and processed in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that it's nearly impossible to do it in a single viewing and that it's being met with indifference now is strangely appropriate. Like its protagonist, maybe the timing just wasn't right. Years from now it will be.

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