Across the ages, in reverse
by Jason Blair
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: Directed by David Fincher. Written by Eric Roth, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cinematography, Claudio Miranda. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Nelson, Tilda Swinton, Elias Koteas, Jason Flemyng and Julia Ormond. Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures, 2008. PG-13. 159 minutes.
|Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button|
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man who, having been born elderly, ages backwards into an infant. It’s not altogether unappealing, one might argue, to think that youth might arrive when we’re ready for it, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button serves as a massive rejoinder to this view. While it’s true that “we all end up in diapers,” as one character says, that’s little consolation for Benjamin, who will suffer the diminishments of the forward-aging (like memory loss) in the opposite direction of everyone he loves. Scripted by the writer of Forrest Gump (Eric Roth) and sharing that film’s epic, era-to-era sweep, Curious Case is a romantic fantasy about decay, the ephemeral nature of love and a “disease” that better resembles a curse. It both exceeds the other big entertainments it resembles, like Big Fish and Meet Joe Black, and falls prey to the excesses of those and other spectacles whose reach exceed their grasp.
Based upon a slim, unremarkable F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button resembles its source material about as much as the old resemble the young. In Fitzgerald’s hands, Benjamin is a flinty opportunist born literate, a full-sized man-child who reads the encyclopedia as a “baby.” In the hands of director David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club), Benjamin is born a wrinkled infant who exhibits the cataracts and arthritis of an 80 year old. The time is 1918, not 1860. We’re in New Orleans, not Baltimore. During its first, strongest hour, when the film’s pace might be called luxurious, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is extravagantly slow, so carefully is the vision of New Orleans composed as a utopia for all races and ages. During these early scenes, the interplay between Benjamin’s adoptive mother Queenie (Taraji P. Nelson, Hustle and Flow) and the young-elderly Benjamin himself (the voice of Brad Pitt) is riveting. Every utterance from Pitt, both in content and modulation, is original and fresh, while Nelson exudes vulnerability and strength, not to mention a fair bit of exhaustion.
It isn’t long before Benjamin meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the free-thinking love of his life who, although she’s close to Benjamin’s age, is harshly scolded for playing with him soon after they meet. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button then settles into a long and highly episodic waiting game: for Benjamin to appear more youthful; for that youth to belong to Brad Pitt and, ultimately, for the older-youthful Benjamin to “meet in the middle” with an older Daisy. When that happens, their romance floods the film; it’s hard not be swept up in it. But the interlude is merely a flyover within the much longer scope of the film, meaning that the consequences of their union aren’t as felt as they might be. One of these consequences is that, in a few short years, Daisy will be reduced to parenting Benjamin, who by then will have aged into her son, not her husband.
For a film about impermanence and frailty, Curious Case is remarkably alive in its performances, many of which are subtly aided by the softest, most convincing digital effects ever created. (You will not believe your eyes when you see Benjamin age in reverse.) Blanchett’s evolution needs no effects; her performance gives the film depth and credibility. Tilda Swinton, as an early love of Benjamin’s, has never seemed so natural. What will and should be debated is whether the titular character, when played by Brad Pitt, is so detached, so perpetually bemused, that some emotions are left unexplored. I’m still debating that myself, although my sense is that once Benjamin ages into Brad Pitt, any questions about his method will largely be forgotten.
If Curious Case exhibits multiple handicaps — not one but two bookend segments, one involving Hurricane Katrina — it is hard to imagine not being moved by the film’s explorations of the fallibility of love. If only the middle and latter sections, which include one botched and several unnecessary scenes, were as consistent as the earlier one.