December 3, 2008

Written by Matt Goldberg

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is epic in the best sense of the word. It’s not about set pieces—it’s about scale. It’s not about distance—it’s about depth. Director David Fincher has crafted an epic love poem, a tale of life and death, a story about storytelling. He does it all and does it without soaring trumpets, grand declarations, or even the in-your-face style of “Fight Club”. He does it with character, with pacing, with gorgeous cinematography, and with all the quiet strength and confidence of a much older and experienced artist.

The hook of “Benjamin Button” is that the title character (Brad Pitt) was “born under unusual circumstances.” Specifically, Benjamin is born as a man in his mid-80s and then ages in reverse. Abandoned by his father on the doorstep of an old-folks home, Benjamin is found by the kind-hearted Queenie (secret weapon Taraji P. Henson again reminding us why her involvement in a film is a reason for excitement) who works as a caretaker at the home. We learn of Benjamin’s story through his diary, read by Caroline (Julia Ormond), the daughter of his life-long love Daisy (Cate Blanchett). As Daisy fades away on her deathbed, we walk through Benjamin’s life and see the odd turns of happenstance, opportunity, loss, learning, and above all, love; the unusual circumstances of his life leading to events both common and extraordinary.

Benjamin’s condition is both an after-thought and a symbol on which the entire film turns. We never forget that we’re watching a seven-year-old that happens to look seventy or a sixty-year-old that looks twenty-one, yet it’s rarely distracting. It’s only when we take a step back do we realize the beauty and tragedy of Benjamin’s condition is that his life is on a countdown. He knows exactly when his time is up and it gives an immediate reason to treasure each moment and value every relationship. It’s odd little thing to wake up a day younger and a day closer to death and again, balancing that knowledge is what makes Benjamin such a rich character. The film turns to Benjamin’s age for an occasional moment of levity or poignancy and it always remains in the periphery but the focus of the film isn’t age—it’s life.

What makes “Benjamin Button” such a rich tapestry is that the film has so much to offer. I’m sad that I’ll probably have to wait until Christmas to see the film again but I’m thankful that I’ve at least seen it once. I would like to watch it again with the sound off just to gawk at Claudio Miranda’s luscious cinematography. The film has a look that’s both modern yet timeless with images of Daisy’s ballet or Benjamin at sea painted into my brain. It also does a wonderful job of capturing setting. Like any good epic, “Button” takes place in a variety of locations across the globe, but New Orleans is its home and the city should probably get its name on the marquee along side Pitt and Blanchett. That the framing device of Caroline reading Benjamin’s diary to Daisy takes place on the eve of Hurricane Katrina is slightly distracting until you notice that storms are cleverly woven throughout the fabric of the film, a constant reminder of nature’s terrifying instability yet odd comfort in its inevitability. It may be a symbol for something but I’m not sure what…

I would like to watch the film with the sound off and listen to Eric Roth’s dialogue and Benjamin’s voiceovers that make me feel not only the New Orelans’ drawl but like I’m hearing literature come to life (which works out well since it’s based off a 1922 short story by some guy called F. Scott Fitzgerald). I’d like to hear Alexandre Desplat’s carefully measured score that always supports the film rather than acting as a crutch or a distraction.

But if I closed my eyes or covered my ears, I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the performances of the film, chief among them, Brad Pitt as the man with the curious case. Simply put, Pitt gives his best performance to date. Yes, flashier roles like Tyler Durden or Jeffrey Goines get the acclaim but the quiet strength and soul that Pitt puts into his performance is uncanny. He’s not just acting under make-up or through it but actively makes his age a part of his character. A young man born into an elderly body, Pitt thoughtfully portrays Button as a boy who grew up not among energetic children but among the infirm, the dying, and most importantly, the introspective. There’s the saying that “Youth is wasted on the young,” but “Button” makes me think that the opposite may be just as true.

It’s also to Pitt’s credit that he doesn’t let the make-up do all the work because with make-up and CGI this good, he probably could get away with it. All age make-up from here on out has to live in the shadow of “Benjamin Button”. While Button’s reverse aging is his hook, there are numerous characters throughout his lifetime that go through traditional aging and the work done on them is no less impressive. Quality aging make-up to make an actor look older or younger is difficult and “Benjamin Button” makes it look easy.

Playing alongside Pitt sharing is Cate Blanchett, once again effortlessly demonstrating that she’s of the best actresses working today. The film doesn’t need to waste time showing the pros and cons of Benjamin and Daisy. The chemistry and craft between Pitt and Blanchett sells that love for us and it sells because it’s not always active and burning with the passion of a thousand suns. In “Benjamin Button”, it’s not just about acting like your in love—it’s about acting like how a person of a certain age acts in love. The young love recklessly, the mature love confidently, the old love wistfully, and then there are all the complexities in between. It’s a complex portrayal of a complex emotion and one with a rewarding pay-off.

I’ll admit I was tearing-up at the end of the film. This is an epic love story told not simply through singular events but through the entire lives of two people. It’s a love that feels real because it perfectly captures the foolish temperament of youth and the deep sadness of experience. If you need evidence of the film’s success, look no further than the scenes between Benjamin and Daisy. Our instinct to see such May-December relationships is to find them icky and unbecoming but because of the confidence of Pitt, Blanchett, Roth, and Fincher, we always know that these two people are only six years apart in age and it’s their actions that bind them together, not their physical appearances.

With the exception of orcs, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has everything I want in an epic and delivers it all flawlessly. It knows when to lean on the strange, embrace the universal, and how to balance everything in between. It is timeless, it is immediate, and it is classic. Its beauty is staggering. Its loveliness is heartbreaking.

Rating —– A

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