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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
A short story
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
(32-page Paperback from Amazon)
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Where does an idea for a person to live his life backwards come from? In the case of the short story on which this very long film is based, author F. Scott Fitzgerald said that he was inspired by something Mark Twain had said, that "the best things in life happen at the beginning and the worst at the end." Neither Twain nor Fitzgerald are alone in lamenting this generalized truth, and here we have a film to demonstrate vividly that there would be consequences in altering human biology to fit old-age wistfulness.
The epic saga opens with an extreme close up of an aged woman's face. It's as though director David Fincher wanted to prove how great the makeup is, since this is Cate Blanchett as the aged Daisy. As the camera pulls back we see her lying in what is assumed to be her death bed in a hospital, with nurses scurrying around, making her comfortable with as much morphine as she wishes to have. The time is now. In the room with her is Caroline (Julia Ormond), her daughter by Mr. Benjamin Button, who has not known anything about her singular parentage.
The diary begins early in the 20th century, on the night he came into the world, causing his mother to die in childbirth and his father Thomas's (Jason Flemyng) shock and dismay at seeing the face of his baby--the face of a 70-year old man. To Thomas it's malformed ugliness that could only be rejected. He grabs it from the arms of his wife and runs frantically out into the streets, ending up abandoning the newborn in the middle of the city in the middle of the night.
The babe, wrapped in a blanket, is discovered by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, "The Family That Preys"), the black housemaid of a retirement home who takes the abandoned one for her own and, proceeds to raise the little, spindly, gray-haired, near-sighted Benjamin, only to see him improve and eventually grow out of his wheelchair. The residents, Southern gentlepeople, take a supportive delight in his and Queenie's good fortune, as well.
Adhering to natural law, hormones develop by the time Benjamin is reaching adolescence and on his feet, though he's still looking 65-ish when he meets Daisy (Elle Fanning at 7; Madisen Beaty at 10), the pretty red-headed granddaughter of one of the residents who loves dancing. His partner for life is established and, by the time he's old enough in real years and 50-ish in physical years, he leaves for a job on a tugboat for the manful experiences that his physical stature now allows him. Daisy implores him to write to her from everywhere he goes.
Time passes, with Benjamin's continuing youthfulness emerging and many episodes detailing his adventures--including the night the tugboat destroys a German submarine. Daisy the adult (Blanchett) goes to New York and becomes a prima ballerina. There they hook up again but, still, not quite ready for the fulfillment that is yet to come.
The tale's progression is matched and made magic by the leading edge of motion capture digital effects that takes makeup into a new generation. If we thought Blanchett's aging is good in her hospital scenes, it's little more than standard matched up against the seamless process applied to Pitt. The exquisite control of Button's apparent maturation through the film is an astute contributant to the story and a significant indication of the state of the art. You have but to imagine it and digital artistry will make it seem real. I've only seen its equal on Santa's tiny people in 2007's "Fred Claus," using a technology that has now been outdone by this work. Kudos to the f/x crew!
So, it should come as no surprise that the magic doesn't stop there. Fincher, and his screenwriter Eric Roth, taking full liberties with the Fitzgerald concept, have turned in a grand piece of work that will remind filmgoers of "Forrest Gump," another long saga of an unexpected and similarly impassive personality. Which shouldn't come as a surprise, since Roth wrote that one, too.
The contrast between crisp, bluish scenes of current day reality and the saturated softness of the period progression is handled exquisitely and venturously by cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("Failure To Launch") with a digital Thomson VIPER FilmStream Camera. Further enhancement of the image might have been possible if the recording medium were film, but most viewers won't be bothered by the subtle difference. The score by Alexandre Desplat features tuneful period tracks that exemplifies the time, and tastefully supports the range of emotional changes on the rich journey. Most notable is Scott Joplin's concert waltz.
Of the fully accomplished supporting cast, Ormond is especially worth singling out. Since "Smilla's Sense Of Snow" her screen presence set me adrift on her orbit as a fan. I've looked forward to any sightings and her genius here, in bring so much vigor and naturalness to a long role in a confined space. Beauty and incisiveness.
Which gets me to Pitt, about whom there's much to admire. He has taken the concept and artfully makes it live. Arguably, this achievement matches his best roles in such films as "Babel" and, most especially, the one that shows frightening power in "Troy." It's getting more and more difficult to pigeonhole this guy.
While any film of 159 minutes or so presupposes the intention to make a masterpiece, whether this one is or isn't is in the eye and tastes of the beholder. In the final analysis, I think it falls short of "...Gump," which was one, perhaps because of a considerably warmer and more visceral connection to the central figure.
While I would characterize "Button" as a major achievement, I believe I would have found it better in a 90-minute format comprised of a telescoped first part and the full "adult" second portion which is really what gels dramatically for us and justifies the price of admission. A final analysis brings me also to the feeling that its impressiveness consists more of admiration than emotional response, and that the melancholy that it did impress on me by a life realized in backward progression is brought about by a novel theoretical concept to begin with.
~~ Jules Brenner