Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (U.S., 2008) directed by David Fincher, 2 hrs., 40 minutes

Two things motivated me here to see the film. Perhaps name them lust and its better bred cousin literature: Brad Pitt as the character of Benjamin Button and the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote the original story that the film was based on. I must say that the effects are phenomenal but my first warning that I would have reservations about it was that the script was written by Eric Roth, the same screenwriter who wrote Forrest Gump.

I remember I shocked family and friends by declaring that I disliked Gump – it was truly one of the worst films I had seen in many years. Tom Hanks, whom I think is talented, gave such a stunted, annoying, actorly delivery of his lines which I presume was considered to be endearing that it totally put me off. I had the same reaction to Brad Pitt in the film as he plays the character in the beginning of the film. The purpose of this style of delivery is inexplicable to me. Is he meant to be some sort of idiot savant at that stage of his life because clearly, later, he is seen to be intelligent and thoughtful? Is this what the actor envisages as the aspect of an old and infirm person?

It is surprising to me that this film comes from David Fincher (think of the excellent films Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac) who, in the past has directed very intense, very violent films. This film is so … yearnful, nostalgic, gentle, perhaps too much so, although I loved the original premise.
The story of Benjamin's life is told through his diary which is read aloud to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), his life long love, now dying in a hospital in New Orleans, Louisana during Hurricane Katrina, by her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond).

As every filmgoer likely now knows, Benjamin is born old: a small, wizened, ugly, arthritic creature whom, it is predicted, will not live long. His horrified father (Jason Flemyng), an affluent Louisiana button maker, gives the boy away after the mother dies in childbirth, leaving him on the doorstep of a nursing home run by a soft hearted woman named Queenie (the now Oscar nominated Taraji P. Henson) who cannot bear to give the child away despite how frightening he appears physically. It is thought that she will never bear children.
Benjamin grows to the size of small but feeble man but he is old, very old, confined to a wheelchair as the film begins, and although he has the mentality of a child, he suffers all the indignities of old age physically. Here in the nursing home, at least, he finds some comfort and companionship primarily with a very young, red haired, blue eyed girl named Daisy whose grandmother also resides in the nursing home. His relationship with Daisy is discouraged even though, mentally, they are very close in age. He falls in love.

Then the “curious” thing happens, Benjamin appears to be growing younger to the astonishment of all. Although appearing old (and curiously, magically, very small on screen compared to Pitt’s true height) he is fleet enough to work on a ship swabbing decks and begins his world travels on a boat named the Chelsea.

In his travels, he falls in love with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), a slightly brittle, neurotic woman who is the wife of an English spy living in Russia. He takes an active part in WWII while on his ship and watches his friends die in the war. He becomes an adult away from Queenie's loving but somewhat smothering embrace. When he returns to the nursing home to live with his mother Queenie after the war, he again encounters Daisy, an aspiring ballet dancer, tall and beautiful and very pretentious. Here is Blanchett at her most annoying: "Acting" with a capital “A”. Perhaps even more annoying than her attempts to portray the dying, very old Daisy at the start of the film.

For some unknown reason, Benjamin cannot be with Daisy. Again, this is inexplicable to me - she is no longer a child but an adult woman, what are his reservations now? Is there a part of the back story that we are not privy to here? They part – she in a great huff to New York to dance in the ballet and he to other adventures. Eventually he follows her to New York (a jazzy, very exciting Beat-like atmosphere prevails here) and he is then rebuffed by Daisy – again the reasoning is unclear to me (c'mon Daisy it's Brad Pitt, and he looks like Brad Pitt now) unless it is to delay the moment when these two can meet and procreate when they are at their hottest on film. When they do meet he is exquisite – “perfect” as Daisy says. One disgruntled friend commented to me, "Yeah, but we had to wait until two thirds of the film to see him look like Brad Pitt."

Still the couple is plagued by the inevitable quandary: when they finally come together, she will age, he will grow younger. When will their relationship end? How will it end? Daisy gives birth to their child and Benjamin cannot face the future with his new daughter whom he will never see grow to adulthood. He leaves with regret and decides to tour the world; Daisy runs a small dance studio and raises their daughter who has no memory of her biological father. When Benjamin returns he is a teenager (how they did this effect is really remarkable – it is Pitt in aspect but much younger, looking perhaps twenty).

And they meet again when he is much, much younger but to say more would spoil the ending which I found truly beautiful. The end, when it comes, is heartrending. But I cannot forgive Pitt that accent and his wooden delivery during the scenes when he is "old". I can forgive him much - but not that!

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