Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

"...I'm Younger Than That Now"

Roger Ebert once wrote that "No good movie is depressing; all bad movies are depressing."

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"is such a fine film, it's painful to watch. Part of that has to do with the central conceit (and this is a conceit, as opposed to a premise) from the originalF. Scott Fitzgerald short story of a man who is born old and dies as an infant. One suspects that Fitzgerald was reaching to show the arc of a life in stark contrast to the norm, and how similar to the norm that extreme is ("We all end up in diapers," says his life-partner Daisy...another Fitzgerald Daisy), But Button's life, if anything, is even more tragic for it. When he shows up late in the film, after an extended leave-taking he's told "You're so young." "Only on the outside" is his quiet reply. It's the perfect riposte to that old saw "Youth is wasted on the young."

One worried when approaching this movie that it would be a "
Forrest Gump" situation, where the technology would call attention to itself, and the story would be another collection of paint-by-numbers history awash in the easy sentimentality of the simple-profound. I wasn't a big fan of "Forrest Gump," and watched its clumsy march to a Best Picture Oscar with a certain bemusement.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is nothing like that (even though it shares a screenwriter, Eric Roth). While director David Fincher came from the special effects area of film-making, he has now long moved past the days when he would pass the camera through the handle of a coffee pot, and uses the technology at his disposal to create invisible wonders throughout the film. It may come as a shock that during the first 30 minutes of "Benjamin Button" the character is a seamless merger of Brad Pitt's heavily-made up head and another actor's body. Another thing they say is that a good movie takes some kind of a miracle. This film brings about miracles every few minutes. And Fincher's rigorous direction is assured and formal, juggling the demands of the effects work with the very real human drama of lives that pass in the night.
This film has been in development for a long time. Usually that means trouble. in this one, it must have been logistics.

Fincher's moments of magic include a dead-on recreation of old-film look* that has a amazing pay-off for a running joke that wouldn't be nearly as hilarious if it wasn't done as a series of silent movies. I've already talked about the invisible technology behind Button's early/elderly years
, but that same CG magic puts Cate Blanchett's face on a prima ballerina and ages or de-ages the principles. It was Red Barber who said that God doesn't count the toys accumulated at the end of a life, He counts the scars. No movie has been so careful as to keep a running track of the lines in a face...or the scars. And when that "only on the outside" moment happens, the face we see is that of Brad Pitt circa "A River Runs Through It." I don't know how they did it. It's amazing. As it must be for the people in the movie.

Let's talk about the actors now.
Cate Blanchett is a given. She weaves through the movie note-perfect, putting the stages of a life out there to be remembered--the naivete, the coltish confidence, the iron strength necessary for healing. Tilda Swinton is there, though her part isn't as rich as Blanchett's, but she makes an impression. Julia Ormond is there, as Daisy's daughter, perfectly American with just a twinge of her French accent creeping in, as her character hails from Louisiana. And Brad Pitt, who's always seemed to me to be a slightly limited actor, proves himself as adept as Blanchett in showing the arc of a life--but in reverse: playing an innocent in old age make-up, but as he gets younger--the eyes get older and wiser. This and his hilarious work in "Burn After Reading" shows that Pitt has moved beyond depending on a slightly ethereal quality to suggest depth. There is a scene where Button is informed by Daisy that she's pregnant and the response from Pitt is a wordless mixture of love and pity.

But, my favorite performer is someone who delights me every time she's on-screen. I've talked about her before. The moment Taraji P. Henson turns up, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" turns into a different movie. She does the same thing as Pitt and Blanchett, but you see her less, and she creates more of an impression than either of them. Her Queenie is a force of Nature, and Henson gives you the impression she's making it all up as she goes. In a film of fine performances, her's stands out.

Finally, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," finds its place as one of those rare films that takes a middling book by a writer of some note, and turns it into a classic film, far surpassing the meager accomplishments of its source.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a full-price ticket and may very well be the best film of the year.

* Towards the end of the film, I noticed a scratch running down the left quadrant of the film and wondered if Fincher was doing that deliberately!

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