The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson and Tilda Swinton
Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking
If there was a film that had Oscar buzz around it before it even finished filming this year, it was David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based (somewhat loosely) on the short story of the same name by famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald and adapted by Academy Award winner Eric Roth. Films that generate this kind of buzz early on often win over critics rather easily while simultaneously annoying others with their apparent pandering. Fortunately, Benjamin Button has all of the hallmarks of an Oscar contender without shoving its aspirations of Academy gold down your throat the whole time.
Fincher’s latest follows the ‘curious case’ of a baby born aged some eighty years. The small tyke is wrinkly and old, with joints clamped shut from arthritis and other afflictions of age. The shocking manchild is abandoned by his father and taken in at an old folks care home by a kindly woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and raised where against all odds he not only survives, but begins aging in reverse. As Benjamin’s body becomes younger, he grows stronger, taller, and gets more hair and experiences life as both an 80 year old and a 12 year old. Because of his appearance, at what is actually a young age, he experiences alcohol, sex, and something akin to love. In his travels, he repeatedly interacts with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) a young woman with whom he is enamored and who is aging quite normally. What follows is essentially a story about love, but more so about a life lived in an extraordinary way. Imagine the kind of life you’d be able to experience when the dreams of your young mind inhabit a respected older body and the experience of old age is stored in a youthful one?
In terms of style, there is never any question a David Fincher film is going to be stunningly shot. Cheated in the year of Zodiac, Fincher seems to have a very good shot at a nomination, if not the win for both Picture and Director. Like his other films, the technical direction and stylistic choices are wondrous and perhaps the most stunning aspect of the film is how the world comes to life both through the characters and the scenery around them. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button must be nominated for its achievements in visual effects. While all of the digital aspects look fantastic, most of the praise will be rightly aimed at the de-aging of Blanchett (if you think she’s beautiful now, wait til you see the simulated 25 year old version) and, of course, the aging process of Brad Pitt. Completely aware that it could not possibly be Pitt inhabiting all stages of the role physically, his face and acting is digitally imposed overtop of the bodies of two different body actors to great effect. Indeed, my favorite portions of the film involve Pitt at his oldest, a young boy locked in an aged and crippled body, yet full of enthusiasm. Without a doubt the acting is attributed to Brad Pitt; his performance shines through the digital manipulation. His voice acting is top notch and seamlessly integrated into the actions of the body actors. Is Pitt’s performance Oscar worthy? Perhaps, but the male actor field is rather full this year. Still, a great performance that, in my opinion, is at it’s strongest when Benjamin is at his oldest.
On the acting note, Blanchett is, as expected, wonderful in her portrayal, though I’ll readily admit to having virtually no sympathy for her character through much of it. Like Jenny from Roth’s other Oscar contender, Forrest Gump, Daisy goes through a sexual revolution through the jazz age and comes off like a melding of a whore, a bitch, and a cry-baby. Daisy, at times, brought me out of the magic of the love story. I was told that these two were destined to be together, that their love was real, but nothing in their actions ever convinced me of it. Daisy, and Blanchett’s performance, are the opposite of Pitt’s, as the older she gets, the more I like her. Whether this was a glorious accident or a very intentional masterstroke of screenwriting dealing with the wisdom of age and the brashness of youth, I am unsure.
Perhaps the most deserving of a nomination is Taraji as Queenie, who completely disappears into the character, rendering her real life slim and beautiful appearance unrecognizable in the pudgy and homely visage of the caretaker. The rest of the cast is exceptional and memorable, though the great performances by Jason Flemyng (Thomas Button) and Jared Harris (Captain Mike) suffer from too little screen time. Though I’m sure the performance that will have everyone talking revolves around an inhabitant of the rest home that retells the 7 stories of how he was hit by lightning. Short and utterly charming and funny. Another memorable scene I must bring up is the war sequence between Captain Mike’s vessel and a German U-boat, an intense and exciting scene that makes me long for a David Fincher directed war film. Another aspect of the film that is very deserving of recognition is the score, masterfully composed by Alexandre Desplat. It has a great classical feel to it and I’ve been listening to it frequently. All I’ll really say about it is this – listen to it, it is a wonderful bit of music that tells a story all itself.
Now that I’ve gushed enough about the film, let me get down to the business end – is this Best Picture material and is it a perfect film? The answers, in order, are Yes and No. The film is deserving of the buzz around it for Oscar consideration, but there are some flaws that I feel may hinder its ability to bring home the big prize – namely, the length. Benjamin Button is not a short film, clocking in around 2hours and 40minutes. Now, long films can be great films, but they also run the risk of failed pacing, which afflicts this movie somewhere around the middle. Things slow down a bit and sputter, meandering back and forth, allowing Fincher to show off some of his normal stylistic choices that are clever and neat, but completely extraneous. The film is also told in a recollected memory, like Titanic or The Princess Bride, where we repeatedly leave the story to listen to the framers. These bits offered relatively little to the story in my opinion and merely served to extend the run time by an unnecessary 20 minutes.
Looking back on Benjamin, it contains a poignant message that is well delivered near the climax of the film. There is much to be learned from Benjamin Button and this film will speak volumes to some, but unfortunately bore others. I find myself somewhere in the middle, though leaning towards a great film. The messages here are deep and universal, from the passage of time, life, death, and every step between. These are messages that many of us can relate to and we do in the course of the film. It’s the kind of movie that you step outside of the theater, acknowledge that it was good, and then immediately lose yourself in thought about how the film applied to your own life. Fincher, Pitt, and Roth crafted an experience that is worthy of praise, worthy of being watched, worthy of being talked about and studied, but is it worthy enough of an Oscar? In another year, I might have said no. But this year I have been somewhat underwhelmed with the films that are being pushed as Oscar contenders, which may just work out in favor of the excellent, though flawed, Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opens in wide release on December 25th.