Reel Opinions

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

If you ever need any proof of the theory that a great movie is never long enough, and a bad one is never short enough, consider this - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs for almost three hours, but seems much shorter while you're watching it. Now take the recent Australia, which runs about the same amount of time, but seemed to last for 10 hours. I've sat through 90 minute films that felt longer than the entirety of Benjamin Button.

The experience of watching this film is something I always go for the movies for, but seldom get. It's the experience of knowing you're watching something great. Sometimes it sneaks up on you about the halfway point, and sometimes you can tell pretty early on. This movie lets us know pretty early on where it's headed, and doesn't ever veer off course or take a wrong step. In telling its story, it takes its time but doesn't waste a second or scene. If you've seen the ad campaign, you know the basic premise. The title character is a man who was born under mysterious circumstances. As a baby, he has all the physical characteristics of an elderly man with one foot in the grave. (Cataracts, lack of hearing, crippling arthritis) His mother dies giving birth to him, and his father Thomas Button (Jason Flemying) is so terrified at the sight of his bizarre newborn son that he flees with the baby right there, briefly considers drowning him, but instead leaves him on the step of an old person's home. It's there that Benjamin will grow up under the watchful eye of one of the workers at the home, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin will eventually get to meet his father again, but initially won't know it.

The story of Benjamin's life is meandering, and I mean that in the best way possible. Much like life itself, it is a series of experiences and small personal journeys that make up the entirety. He is born at the end of World War I, and we follow his life as the decades roll by. Under mysterious circumstances wisely unexplained by the film, he is forced to live life in reverse, at least physically. When he is a child, he appears to be a crippled old man, though shorter than most. As everyone surely knows by now, Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt, and it is a credit to the filmmakers that we never once tell ourselves we're watching Pitt under a lot of make up. The special effects used to age and even shrink him are subtle, never once drawing attention to themselves, which is probably a technical marvel in itself. It takes the movie about two hours until he becomes completely recognizable as the big screen idol we know, but we don't grow impatient. Because he is forced to age backwards, he can never truly have a real life, but he tries. He works on a boat for a few years, he serves his country when World War II comes around, and he also attempts to win the heart of a woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who enters and leaves his life at various points in the story.

If that description made the movie sound similar to 1994's Forrest Gump, it's probably not a surprise that they share the same screenwriter, Eric Roth. Both films are about outcasts who experience and participate in history in different ways. Benjamin's tale is much quieter and a bit darker, though. It's also more elegantly told. The idea of Benjamin aging physically backwards may sound like a gimmick, but the movie never treats it as such. We believe in what we're seeing, and we also believe in the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy. We first meet Daisy as an elderly woman on her deathbed as her adult daughter (Julia Ormond) watches over her. Benjamin's tale is told through his diary that her daughter reads. The story is just as much about Daisy as it is about him. They first meet when she is about 13, and Benjamin is forced to admit to her he's not as old as he looks. Over the years, they grow apart, but never forget each other. She goes on to become a professional dancer, until an accident cuts her career short. (This is another common theme in the film - Chaos, and how a single second can change the outcome of an event.) It will take decades before they are brought together, and try their best to have a real relationship despite the fact they are aging in opposite ways. It's to the credit of the movie that their realization of the truth is not treated with melodrama, but with subtlety and honesty.

Subtle is the right word for the movie in general. Director David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club) finds the right relaxed tone, and never tries to drum up our emotions. Even when Benjamin is at war, it is a fairly low key affair, with only one battle sequence which is beautiful in its own way, instead of being a spectacle. Despite the film's quiet nature, he certainly brings the film a lot of visual flair. This is one of the most beautiful looking movies I've ever seen, with an attention to detail we seldom see. The set design and special effects work with each other for once, and create a visual experience that absorbs its audience into its setting. I liked the way that flashbacks were told in different film styles. The story that the elderly Daisy tells her daughter which opens the film is told in washed out colors with lines and scratches added to make it look like a worn out film. And Benjamin has frequent encounters with an old man who claims to have been hit by lightning seven different times, each time depicted like an old silent movie. His style helps the film, and adds to the somewhat fairy tale-style telling of the story. However, he mainly stays grounded in reality, and never tries to distract us.

To further draw us into the story, the performances are memorable, even some of the smaller roles. Tilda Swinton (as a British woman whom Benjamin has a brief affair with), Jarred Harris (as the captain of the boat Benjamin works on), Jason Flemying as his father, and Taraji P. Henson as the woman who looks after him may have small roles in the context of the story itself, but leave unmistakable marks with their limited time. Julia Ormond also brings a lot of emotion to her role set in the present day. In the two central roles, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have wonderful chemistry together and successfully bring their characters to life, but there is a small problem with Pitt's performance. It doesn't occur until late in the film, so it takes us a while to notice, but he plays the physically younger Benjamin not as an old man trapped in a young man's body, but rather ordinary. He seems to lose some nuance as his performance goes on. It is a small gripe, and one that was not big enough to break the spell of the movie over me.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been appropriately named, because it is a curious movie in its own way. The movie never seems to be going anywhere or in any hurry to get to where it is going, but we do not grow frustrated. We are enraptured, and when the movie ends, it stays with us. This is the kind of movie you take home with you after seeing it, think it over, talk about with others, and examine it in your head for days to come. And yet, while you're watching it, it's simple enough for anyone to understand and never overly challenging. Early in this review, I talked about how some great movies sneak up on you, and how some seem great early on. This is a movie that seemed great to me from early on, but still managed to sneak up on me in other ways as I thought back on it.

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