A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #10

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

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2008, PG-13, 167 mins.

Benjamin Button: Brad Pitt / Daisy: Cate Blanchett / Caroline: Julia Ormond / Elizabeth Abbott: Tilda Swinton / Monsieur Devereux: Elias Koteas / Queenie: Taraji P. Henson / Thomas Button: Jason Flemyng

Directed by David Fincher / Written by Eric Roth, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"I was born under unusual circumstances. While everyone else was agin', I was gettin' younger... all alone."

Benjamin Button in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a long film that’s based on a rather short story, but it patiently and confidently dives into its universal themes with simplicity and delicacy. The overall premise of the film may feel more like science fiction than drama – that of a man that is born old and then de-ages throughout his lifetime – but BENJAMIN BUTTON’s semi-outlandish arc never distracts, nor is it an annoying hindrance, to the message of the fragility of human existence and the painful unavoidability that even the strongest love will never truly last.  

The movie explores all avenues of love: from initial, to fleeting, to nostalgic and platonic, and then finally to the kind of unyielding devotion that two people have for one another despite some very serious setbacks and roadblocks that impede it.  Overall, BENJAMIN BUTTON is a solemn and melancholic fantasy drama that understands one widespread human pain that we all have experienced at one time or another: everything is devastatingly temporary…nothing truly lasts...even we are compelled to think that it will.  The fact that the film has a character that ages abnormally is almost besides the point: it’s just a strange and offbeat lens to view the film’s understanding of the sincere and compassionate connections people make that, when all is said and done, will sadly erode. 

Of course, the film is based on the short 1921 short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he considered one of his lesser works.  The story works more on a level of broad social farce than anything else, but it should be noted that the film’s screenwriter, Eric Roth (one of the great American film writers, having penned one memorable film after another like FORREST GUMP, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, MUNICH, and THE INSIDER) only takes the story’s underlining concept and uses it for inspiration for the film version.  Many may claim that a story of the length and scope of Fitzgerald’s could have been made without the self-indulgent length of 2 hours and 47 minutes, but BENJAMIN BUTTON’s lengths is one of its many hidden strengths: its scale mirrors and compliments the lifespan it’s trying to encapsulate.  The film is serene and patient and never rushes the proceedings, nor does the narrative flow ever feel dawdling or tedious.  As a result of this approach, the full sweeping impact of Button’s life and the way he changes both himself and those around him have a real emotional power; a shorter film would have all but undermined this. 

This adaptation has been in the works for quite some time, perhaps staled by the fact that no filmmaker was able to crack the obvious technical restraints of trying to convincingly de-age an actor.  Director’s like Ron Howard, Spike Jonze, Stephen Spielberg, and Gary Ross – some of which are no slouches when it comes to making films with impressive production values – all balked at filming BUTTON.  Enter David Fincher, who would take upon himself the daunting 150 day shooting schedule – excluding what has been stated as a near two year post-production schedule for visual effects – to bring the essence of Fitzgerald’s classic to the screen, and the result is both a dramatic and technical tour de force and a masterpiece of blending the artificial and the real.   

If anything, Fincher can now proudly take claim to being in the upper echelon of masterful film craftsman.  There probably is no one better suited and tailored for this material.  Hired in the early 1980’s by Industrial Light and Magic to oversee effects on such landmark entertainments like RETURN OF THE JEDI and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and later churning out his own creative visual style in TV commercials and music videos for the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Rick Springfield, Fincher began to establish himself as a unique filmmaking voice: he’s never made a bad looking film – even his self-imposed estrangement from his first film, ALIEN 3, does not undermine that film’s extraordinary imagery.  Like great directors, he has only matured with each new film, and what an outstanding body of work it is: 1995’s incredibly influential serial killer-noir SE7EN, pulp thrillers like THE GAME and PANIC ROOM, the evocative, timely, and abnormally underrated social satire FIGHT CLUB, and finally last year’s utterly absorbing real-life crime and police procedural, ZODIAC, his finest effort of all.  If anything, ZODIAC securely cemented Fincher as an astonishing film auteur that can match stunning period detail, seamless computer effects, sharp characters, and a transfixing story with the best of them.  THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is only a reiteration of the consummate authority, confidence, and precision that Fincher displayed with ZODIAC’S recreation of one of the great unsolved murder mysteries: you’ll be amazed at the film’s aesthetic beauty and grandeur as much as you will be enamored with its intoxicating narrative. 

On its own terms, BENJAMIN BUTTON is many things: a fairy tale, a social parable, a travelogue picture punctuated by real life strife – both past and all-too-recent - and a tender and poignant love story, all elements that were perhaps beyond the scale of Fitzgerald’s source material.  And…yes…the film does bare a striking similarity to the life-spanning adventures through history as on display in FORREST GUMP, but I think that the correlations are superficial at best.  Both films have main characters that look for love against the backdrop of extraordinary and odd circumstances, but Gump was more peculiar and not as self-aware as Button; Forrest’s globe-trotting exploits both inadvertently and directly traversed through historical figures and famous events, often to humorous effect.  Button’s existence is equally as bizarre and sometimes eccentric, not to mention that he too allows an eclectic group of people to enter into his life throughout it.  However, Button is more of a wounded onlooker and observer of life than Gump ever was: Button knows that his life won’t end naturally, which results in the painful self-discovery that everything he has worked at obtaining will be all for naught.  In this way, BENJAMIN BUTTON is a more subtle, less overtly sentimentalized, and profoundly distressing odyssey.   

The film jumps back and forth from and is book-ended during a fateful day in August of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina is just on the verge of laying waste to a Louisiana city.  We see an 80-year-old woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett, completely unrecognizable under what I am guessing is the best old age makeup ever committed to celluloid) that is on her deathbed.  She is constantly attended to by her middle-aged daughter named Caroline (Julia Ormond, still a classic screen beauty at 43).  Daisy’s days are clearly numbered, and the threat of Katrina is bearing down hard on all residents there.  In order to pass time Daisy asks her daughter to read the diary of a man she knew named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt).   

As Caroline begins (she serves partially as the film’s narrator alongside Pitt’s Button), we are first whisked back to a story of a blind clockmaker (the great Canadian actor Elias Koteas) who discovered that his son was killed in the Great War.  The clockmaker used some rather unorthodox methods to create his next piece, a large memorial clock to be installed in a New Orleans train station.  When unveiled to the city – and in front of President Teddy Roosevelt – the clock’s hands travel backwards.  The rationale is simple: the clockmaker’s real dream in life is the reverse time to reclaim his son.  This touching vignette serves as a fitting segue into the curious circumstances that Benjamin Button was born into. 

We then are taken to the celebration of the end of WWI in New Orleans with the birth of Benjamin, who miraculously looks like a baby that has the physical features of an 80-year-old man.  His mother dies tragically after the birth and his father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) is so disgusted his new baby’s appearance that he abandons him on the porch of an old folks nursing home – along with $18 in the blanket.  A kind woman named Queenie (the delightful Taraji P. Henson, a real breakthrough here) finds the baby and brings him in, much to the astonishment of the home’s tenants (“He looks like my ex-husband,” declares one of them).  Queenie, being incapable of having children of her own, decides to raise Ben as her own…despite some very odd challenges, like the fact that the baby has cataracs, arthritis, and has skin that has no elasticity.  Interestingly enough, baby Ben grows up along a normal time scale: when he is five or six he physically has the size of a boy that age, but looks like a cross between Mickey Rooney and Yoda.  Even stranger is that, with each new year, Benjamin is getting younger and younger.  When he is 13 – or, in his case, physically  67 – he meets up with the young Daisy, whom he is instantly smitten with.  The problem is that she’s barely a teen whereas he looks like a few years removed from the grave (talk about awkward!).  Despite some obvious challenges, Ben and Daisy will seem destined to be together, but only at just the right point where their lives can more effectively intersect when Ben is as close to Daisy in terms of mental and physical age. 

Benjamin does have a series of life adventures along the way to securing his love.  As he keeps getting older – and younger – he does a fairly good job of adjusting to a society that initially chastises him as a freak of nature.  The appealing notion to the film’s story is how many divergent people embrace him for who he is: We see the teenage Ben serve on a tugboat during WWII under a crackly old captain, who also introduces the young virgin to the pleasures of whore houses (one of the film’s funnier moments).  From this Ben sees a small detour in Russia where he develops a short-term love affair with a middle-aged Brit named Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton, perfectly refined here in a small, but crucial, part), whose is tired of living with her spy husband.  From that short fling Ben does see action in the form of Japanese bomb attack on the tugboat at sea (one of the film’s many painstaking visual marvels) and eventually uses those experiences to decide that its time to settle down and find the woman he’s always cherished.  As he reaches his forties (looking just as Pitt does in real life) he looks for Daisy, now a bohemian-living ballet dancer in The Big Apple.  Benjamin soon learns the ups and downs of love – and the notion of true devotion to another when tragedy strikes – and as his life journeys towards his formative elderly years (he starts to look like a teenager at this point) he starts to fully understand the serious impediments to procuring a loving and lasting relationship with Daisy.

Because the characteristically able-minded David Fincher is assertively at the helm, BENJAMIN BUTTON emerges as yet another unforgettable visual tour de force for the director.  All aspects of this production at in fine, top notch form, from Claudio Miranda’s lush cinematography (this is one of the rare digitally shot films that does not look it), to Donald Graham Burt’s lavish and immersing production design, and finally – and most notably – to what will be seen as pioneering visual effects by Eric Barba.  Perhaps the most astounding artistic achievement of the film is the way that Fincher and company are able to so adeptly hide the strings behind their CGI concoctions: the miraculous and evocative recreation of New Orleans at the turn of the Century is a technical wonder, as is the before-mentioned sea battle during WWII near the center point of the film.

 The single greatest achievement is the de-aging of Benjamin Button itself.  A less ambitious director would have simply hired small, old people punctuated with makeup to give the impression of a diminutive, 80-year-old Brad Pitt.  Fincher, being a true pioneer, went several steps further by filming Pitt’s facial performance and – in a series of severely complicated digital compositing – he used computers to map the face and then superimpose it over various physical actors that performed on the set.  The most incredible and indelible aspect of this is not only the fact that the CGI never once draws needless attention to itself (the subtlety and all of the minute details are extraordinarily handle), but also how Pitt’s performance manages to shine through all of the precise and intricate digital tinkering.   This is the finest example of faultless and impeccable computer generated characters that I have ever seen in any film.  There’s rarely a moment where you don’t believe in what you’re seeing.

However, the key here is not to distract from Pitt’s performance, and Fincher knows that the film needs to allow this poor creature of circumstance that is Button become a living, breathing persona.  Pitt’s work here is a textbook example of restraint, poise, and how acting with subtlety is often more empowering (watch several scenes where he simply uses his eyes – often under layers of physical and digital makeup – to sell the character’s delicate emotional state).  Pitt certainly has the toughest job of all the actors, and the way he manages to craft a fully developed character that is largely the product of special effects artifice is kind of thankless.  Blanchett is also frequently the product of visual effects wizardry (at one point, the 39-year-old actress plays her character at 20, with a computerized airbrush job), but she too manages to effortlessly reveal the deep emotional foibles of her character and the troubled intricacy of maintaining a relationship with Button.  Tilda Swinton is also rock steady in small supporting role, but perhaps the real standout in the film – beyond Pitt – is Taraji P. Henson, who gives a  quietly touching and endearing portrayal of Button’s adopted mother.  She gives her genteel and well-mannered Southern mother figure an added heartfelt soul to the film…and she is absolutely crucial to the emergence of Button as a maturing character:  It is her undying maternal love of Benjamin – even with his highly abnormal physical development – that allows for Benjamin to develop some semblance of acceptance to the outside world.

Yet, all of this proves that the most splendid visual effects and impressive and awe-inspiring production design would be for not without characters and themes that we invest in, which I think is what is BENJAMIN BUTTON’s real achievement.  The film will certainly inspire a natural sense of wonder and awe in it sights (the film should be a shoe-in for most technical categories at next year’s Oscars), but the truly brilliant facet of the film is how it so adeptly finds the right balance between cutting edge technology, endearing and moving performances, and an involving and touching story that captures the life of an startlingly unique individual living under “unusual circumstances” that deals with the same universal trials and tribulations as most of us do.  The expansiveness of the film’s themes really hits home in one final sad shot, which shows that clockmaker’s backwards running clock – now in storage and replaced by a new and more artificial looking digital clock – being overcome by Katrina’s flood waters.  The message here is simple, but with an unavoidable relevance and importance to all viewers: All things, at some point or another, will come to an end with startling immediacy through factors we often can’t control.  

Such was the curious case of Benjamin Button’s life, as presented in one of 2008’s most unforgettable and impressively mounted films.

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