Movie Review: The Curious Case Benjamin Button
One of the remarkable things about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the films ability to resonate with every audience, yound and old.
Here’s the beautiful thing about film: Movies speak differently to different people. That’s a simple truth. And what a film truly means — which is to say, what one takes away from it — can change and evolve and grow along with its audience. We bring into every theater our age, our experience, our successes and failures, our joys and our longings. We sit in the dark, gazing at the screen, subject only to ourselves. This is the very same reason why a movie which sparks a flame in some people ultimately fails to find its tinder with others. Yet it’s this remarkable quality that makes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button such an achievement — that it is capable of speaking to every audience, young and old, and that while its message will be vastly different for grandchild and grandfather, it will only ever age, backward or forward, as we do.
And the concept is simple — that Benjamin Button begins life as an old man and ends life as a child. Whoever said that we enter the world weeping and weak and bald and in diapers, and leave it the very same way, spoke to one of the underlining truths of Benjamin Button, a philosophy heightened by the love story at the film’s center. Born as a shriveled infant — eyes blind, joints swollen — Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is abandoned by his father, Thomas Button, on the doorstep of an old-folks home and taken in by Queenie, an African-American nurse. Slowly, Benjamin takes on the frame of a man well into his ’80s. In a departure from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original story, Benjamin has only the mental faculties of a child, growing into a kind of mental adulthood as his body knits itself back into boyhood.
When Benjamin first meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), she’s perhaps 10 years old to Benjamin’s 70, but it’s a meeting of children nonetheless. It’s also the start of a love story that develops slowly, and eloquently, over the course of decades. The film itself spans the entire course of Benjamin’s life, following his “childhood” spent in the home to his “adolescence” spent at sea with Captain Mike, following the currents directly into the events of World War II and home once again, back into the company of Daisy. It’s not a complicated film, just a broad one and its magic is simply in the depth of Benjamin’s point of view. Though he thinks and behaves and acts contrary to his own physical appearance, Benjamin allows the audience to apply their own understandings of life to the journey. Certainly, introspective twentysomethings will find a vastly different meaning in the film than those older and closer to death, but there’s honest, moving and emotional meaning to be found there by both… and in plenty.
This is in large part attributable to the absolute triumph of director David Fincher, whose visual mastery and unsentimental approach never spoon-feeds the audience or over-sweetens the narrative. As with any life, there’s equal parts suffering and celebration, and Fincher treats this inevitability fairly and with respect. One never feels forced into a particular emotion, which, given the premise, might easily have been the case with a lesser director. Rather, he applies his painterly eye for framing and his expert understanding of visual effects to tell a story which allows the audience to take from it whatever they will, offering much yet giving nothing. And that neither Fincher nor writer Eric Roth wink too heavily or acknowledge too overtly the magic realism of the premise allows for the audience to do the same.
Many an effects-person has long said that if an audience fails to notice the illusion, they’ve done the job to their own satisfaction, and if such is the barometer for success, then Benjamin Button boasts perhaps the finest use of visual effects ever put to film. The aging techniques applied to Pitt throughout the movie virtually disappear into his performance, so seamless and smoothly integrated that beyond some initial sense of admiration, the effect drifts away into the narrative. No doubt, there’s some top-notch CG wizardry on display here, but rarely, if ever, is there a moment when one becomes acutely aware of it.
But none of it works if Benjamin himself doesn’t prove to be somebody with whom the theater is willing to pass a lifetime. Fortunately, Pitt’s performance offers the range of human experience — from the innocent eyes of an 80 year old child to the experienced, world-weary gaze of a teenager who’s been alive almost a century. Pitt creates not only the singular character of Benjamin Button, but various versions of the man glimpsed at a number of points throughout his life. The acting here, while certainly never showy, is expert in its subtlety. And Blanchett does some wonderful work as Benjamin’s counterbalance, providing not only a gut-wrenching visual contrast as the two age beyond one another, but an emotional core, as well. Together, the two have created a love story that says as much about life as it does about love.
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