The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) dir. David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett,
Midway through this film when a sense of slogging tedium set in I had flashbacks to another lengthy Brad Pitt mood piece, “Meet Joe Black”. “Benjamin Button” is not nearly as bad, yet some of the same faults nearly drown this sometimes fascinating sometimes dreary tragic fantasy tale.
It’s present day New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina is about to hit, an elderly woman on her deathbed recounts to her daughter the diary of the life of Benjamin Button, her one true love. Flashback to 1920's New Orleans to start the lifecycle of Benjamin Button who began life as an old man (still a baby) and regresses in age to eventually a young handsome man to a young boy then a baby.
Benjamin is brought up by a kindly black woman after the swaddling clad baby is left on her doorstep. The irony is not missed by anyone as Benjamin grows up in her adopted mother's senior citizens' home. He falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on first site (is there any other way to fall in love in the movies)? Because of Benjamin's condition their relationship can only blossom when their ages coincide with each other, in the middle. Before then Benjamin tours the world in a tug boat, but always keeping tabs on Daisy. When they finally have a chance to be together it's about 10 years of bliss before Benjamin realizes at some point they will diverge and be unable to grow old together.
The special makeup effects which make Brad Pitt an elderly baby and wrinkly naive child are astonishing. Fincher never jumps far enough in time to provide the drastic physical change we expect. Instead it's a gradual change from old to young. We barely even notice the difference in age from scene to scene. On the technical level the film is a triumph.
“Meet Joe Black” comes to mind because that lengthy Pitt film was plagued with Benjamin Button’s ailments. A distinct and seemingly concerted lack of conflict. The film tries to sustain two hours and forty five minutes of tenderness without a single break of tension, anger, danger or stress, which comes as a major surprise from a director who has made a career from dark material.
Button is drenched with so much tender melancholy and whimsy it’s like Miles Davis playing the harmonica for an entire symphony – one note or one key the entire film. Since Fincher is so obsessive about controlling the tone of his films I don't think he ever forgot to put in the conflict. It's a conscious decision which gives the film it's distinct fairytale quality.
Benjamin never raises his voice, never sheds a tear, rarely even smiles or laughs. Even when he catches up with his age, Benjamin feels like a fish out of water, like Klaatu in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still”. This alienness to his surroundings feeds into his innate transient nature and the painful decision he makes in the end. The finale brings powerful feelings and emotions mainly because it took so long to get there – a necessity in storytelling terms but often painful and tedious.
The sheer length can be maddening for the impatient, and especially for those who thought “Zodiac” was too long. Are the genuine feelings of sorrow worth the nearly three hours it takes to find this epiphany? It’s worth a shot, but a journey I have no desire to take again.