The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond
By Sean Chavel
"Life can only be understood backward / It must be lived forward.” is the marketing tagline; Perhaps that will make sense in a greater context, like after you’ve seen the movie. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is being campaigned as a likely Oscar darling – a grand, reassuring storybook entertainment that will satisfy waves of audiences. Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin, who is prematurely born in 1918 New Orleans and abandoned by his father immediately following birth. Benjamin is deformed, taking on the shape and characteristics of a pruned troll. During his lifelong odyssey Benjamin will age backwards, with sometime midway turning into… picture perfect Brad Pitt.
In 2 hours and 47 minutes, the story immerses into Benjamin’s lifelong struggles and awe-inspiring joys. Patience is required for Benjamin and the audience as we spend much time observing early Benjamin’s ailments. At the community home, Benjamin is founded by a black servant, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), at a retirement home. Benjamin is quickly diagnosed by doctors with a promise of a short lifespan. Cataracts, poor hearing, immobile ligaments are Benjamin’s first deterrents and he is indubitably confined to a wheelchair.
The filmmakers squeeze excess juice out of Benjamin’s early years, informing us this is going to be a long movie indeed. Benjamin is surrounded by other elders that have lifelong biographical stories to share, and one of them teaches our hero to play the piano or teaches him poetry. Just under his first decade, Benjamin finally roams the streets with a companion for the first time, of course, getting in trouble with prostitutes and booze. But Benjamin is very much a pure being with a sensitive heart with aspirations. His first job is as a tugboat man. His first love is red-head Daisy, a young girl who lives in the house under a retiree, and she eventually blossoms into a gorgeous and exceptional ballet dancer (played by Cate Blanchett, looking beautiful under starlight).
Early scenes do visually captivate us with its burnished brown color palate – it makes us feel we’re watching something very antique-ish and in some of the dreamier sequences have a scratched sepia-tone silent film aesthetic. The film’s director, David Fincher (“Seven,” “Zodiac”), uses these techniques to envelop us into the myth, creating a spell that we’re being caught up in an old homespun fable. Yet the film’s very intrusive flashback structure – the whole thing is narrated by Daisy at her deathbed in contemporary times – is a crushing distraction that jarringly hurls us out of the evocative mood. The dying narrator (Blanchett passes on her memories to her daughter Julia Ormand) is becoming an unnecessary cliché when a straightforward approach would do this fable just fine.
Every time the fable is disrupted it gives you time to think about whether “Curious Case” is about anything or not. Sure, the character’s aging backwards, but other than tickling our fancies what resonance does it mean to the audience? “Nothing ever lasts,” is Benjamin’s first token wisdom. Surrounded by old folks Benjamin sees most of his friends dying while he gets younger, which without a doubt is a sad notion. But what does it mean beyond that? There’s also so dabbling on how the course of outcome cannot be changed whether living forward or backward.
One of the intrigues of the movie is figuring out what the story’s significance will ultimately mean. Aha, what is allegory you might be asking yourselves? By the time the active senior Benjamin develops an affair with an English channel swimmer (Tilda Swinton), his sensitivity and awareness has perked. Something finally dawned on me: Benjamin, having spent the first frame of his life old and ugly, having spent time with wise elders, is able to appreciate life in ways that most commoners have taken for granted. This idea might sound trite on paper, but on the screen this idea is boldly illuminated.
Benjamin exits active senior to become middle-aged man with glasses (less makeup on Pitt), tracing his obsession with Daisy whom he turns down romance initially. That is until he becomes idealized Benjamin! Brad Pitt becomes Mr. Olympus Brad Pitt, but I don’t think that’s a corny and contrived thing. I’d rather see it as a radical expression in storytelling: That a man of this kind of foretelling could strive to become the handsome man he never thought he could become, and Benjamin takes full advantage of his great looks. Benjamin is better dressed for 1962 then the Kennedys, also suggesting that his first-come elderly wisdom prepared him to seize the best of youth.
Perhaps cripples are more grateful for their blessings when they get their second chances. Benjamin certainly knows how to live in the divine. The best part of the movie is the time-wise love between Pitt and Blanchett when they’ve met again at the perfect cross of their ages. The movie is splendorous at times, without being sentimental or sappy (imagine “Forrest Gump” with more contemplation and less preciousness), but it is also a misshapen fable where too many scenes will go by, too many adventures trotted on, that don’t add anything to the big picture. The story is a smorgasbord of excursions and detours until you lose the focus of what it all means in a nutshell. I liked some of the movie, maybe even most of it, but it is an experience that leaves you with mixed feelings. I’m sure others will find rapture within the film that I might have missed.