Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate
Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji Henson, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elias Koteas. Rated
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
to the notion, espoused by Mark Twain, that the best things in life happen at
the beginning and the worst at the end, demands a generous leap of the
imagination. Fitzgerald dedicated roughly 25 pages to his whimsical tale of a
man who begins life as a doddering senior and grows progressively younger.
Here, director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth attempt a bold
re-imagining, using Fitzgerald’s premise as the foundation for a heartfelt
rumination on the drawbacks of living life in reverse.
Born with cataracts, arthritic knees and enough wrinkles to
suggest a man – albeit a very, very small one – well past the age of Medicare
eligibility, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is understandably baffled by his condition.
Abandoned by his father after his mother dies during labor, he is raised in an
old-age home where he seems to fit in quite nicely, save for his uncommon
energy and a lingering desire to play with his food. All he lacks, it seems, is
a proper childhood.
Sure, he can drink and carouse in brothels long before the
other kids his age reach puberty, but there’s an unmistakable sadness in
Benjamin Button, a desire to fit in sated only by his friendship with Daisy, a
little girl who sees past the liver spots and thinning wisps of silver hair and
is attracted by his youthful Úlan. It is their relationship, as Benjamin slowly
recedes into boyhood while Daisy gracefully advances in age, that Fincher and
Roth (Forrest Gump) make the focal point
of a movie that begins at the end of the First World War and ends, somewhat
ominously, as the first waves of an impending flood crash down on New Orleans.
What compelled Roth to relocate Benjamin Button, a
Baltimorean in Fitzgerald’s story, to the Big Easy? Beats me. As he did in Gump,
the veteran screenwriter sets his story against a
backdrop of current events – among them, the Second World War, the Fab Four’s
British invasion and, ultimately, Hurricane Katrina – presumably to mine them for
pop hits and poignant memories.
His latest effort is far less cloying than Gump (though, by the
very nature of its premise, just as
gimmicky) and Fincher’s film is the better for it. It is a triumph of
technique, from Claudio Miranda’s handsome cinematography to the brilliant
makeup job that transforms Pitt into a sprightly codger, and it works for the
better part of nearly three hours as an intensely touching romance. Yet its
interior logic falters just before it arrives at its watery conclusion.
It’s a minor complaint, really. Though of marathon length,
Benjamin Button’s journey is smartly paced and surprisingly grounded. His is a
problematic learning curve – rushed into a kind of superficial maturity as a
child, he gains the perspective that comes with age and experience just as he
begins his regression to boyhood. He and Daisy meet somewhere in the middle,
and their courtship is star-crossed from the start. Their hearts are willing
and perfectly matched, making it all the more agonizing that their bodies are
doomed to lose a race against time.
Although Pitt carries the film capably – he appears in
nearly every scene, thanks to some particularly artful sleight of hand – it is
Cate Blanchett, as the adult Daisy, who brings the passion to their abbreviated
romance. When we first meet her, she is a fiery young woman worldly enough to
intimidate an old-fashioned country boy like Benjamin. Her impulsiveness is
tempered with age, of course, but her spirit remains unbroken throughout. She
succeeds, after years of trying, in hungrily drawing her childhood playmate out
of his reticent shell, but the reward is bittersweet: No sooner do they find
the happiness they’ve spent their lives searching for than Benjamin withdraws
again to play out the string of his strange mortal passage. Wounded but
resigned, Daisy is left to grieve for them both.
If anything, Pitt’s is the less obviously rewarding of the
two roles. Though some have criticized his approach as restrained to the point
of detachment, his understated performance has its virtues. For all his
extraordinary adventures, there is an underlying mournfulness in Benjamin
brought on by the dawning realization that he can never grow old with the ones
he loves. He is a freak, isolated from the rest of humanity by his unique
genetic quirk, yet he feels increasingly the sadness of the human condition.
Maybe Twain wasn’t wrong, after all.
There is much to appreciate in The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button, which is as much a product
of Fincher’s meticulous craftsmanship as his Fight Club or last year’s
Zodiac. The film was clearly a delicate undertaking, and it
is ambitious enough that a misstep or two can be forgiven. Born with the body
of an infant and the facial features of a man well past his prime, does it not
stand to reason, by the movie’s own logic, that Benjamin Button should end his
life trapped in the body of an old man with the face of a baby? A grotesque
thought, perhaps, but no more surreal than the story itself.