The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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I can imagine that, in a haze of inebriation and jazz music, philanthropist and socialite F. Scott Fitzgerald dipped his pen against a bushel of papers, scribbling what would become a short story of epic proportions. The piece in question, known as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was published in 1922. That year flappers lounged about, christening their lips with alcohol, and Clara Bow bounced around looking for Hollywood stardom. Fitzgerald, who was a consummate boozehound, died of a heart attack in 1940. “So we beat on. Boats against the currents, borne back ceaselessly into the past” reads the writer’s tombstone – an excerpt from his celebrated novel, The Great Gatsby. The engraving, speaking volumes about Fitzgerald’s fascination with time and mortality, is greatly seen in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, now adapted into a film by David Fincher.

In the grand scheme of things, Fincher was the right man to direct Fitzgerald’s short story. The plot of Benjamin Button, dealing with a man who ages backwards, contains many magical anecdotes in its brief, inspired prose. Fincher, who directed last year’s fantastic Zodiac, dusts off the worn pages of Fitzgerald’s story and reanimates them with flesh and warmth. The tale of Benjamin Button – played here by Brad Pitt – is quite linear in structure: a baby is born in the from of an elderly man, grows up estranged from other children, falls in love with a woman, and finally partakes in serendipitous adventures as he grows, uh, younger.

Fincher sets up his tone early, giving credence and authenticity to the maddening scope of the 1920s. The film, drenched in warm oranges and icy blacks, flutters beautifully along, hopping and buzzing with the energy and enthusiasm of a hummingbird – the script, at various points, actually calls for one. It’s obvious that a lot of great cinematography marches over each frame of this film – coming off as a spectacle of power and magnitude. The visuals in Benjamin Button have obviously been groomed for Oscar season grandeur: there isn’t one picturesque shot in this movie that wouldn’t be considered as a standalone painting. The slathering of these fresh, robust brush strokes compliment composer Alexandre Desplat’s sweeping score. Much like many other episodic dramas of the past, the archetypical piano keys in Benjamin Button plunk away in methodic fashion. But, with that being said, Desplat’s sumptuous orchestration still manages to trump its predecessors with an emotionally gravitating pull. How decadent this whole feast is. Some films, trying with all of their might to become the Academy’s pet, scratch and claw to look important: Benjamin Button transcends itself to actually feel important.

When watching Fincher’s film, you may notice distinct shades of Big Fish and, more than anything else, Forrest Gump. In fact, Button screenwriter Eric Roth had actually written the celebrated Tom Hanks picture a decade and some odd change earlier. No matter, these similarities do not detract from the epical nature of the film.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the two leads in the film, are the vanguard of a great ensemble cast. Pitt, who is virtually unnoticeable in the early stages of the film, envelops himself within the weathered and decrepit body of Benjamin. It’s unfathomably affecting to see the big blue eyes of our protagonist trapped inside the drawn and defeated face of an older man, as they inquisitively dart back and fourth with the curiosity of an innocent child. The digital effects in the movie are, without a doubt, the most impressive I’ve seen in recent memory. All of the CGI interweaves itself flawlessly between the movie’s live action sequences, creating a kind of filmic utopia.

Blanchett, who plays Daisy, Benjamin’s love interest, is extremely charismatic in her role. In a script that is quite possibly one of the most romantic works ever written, it was wholly necessary for the two main players – in this case Blanchett and Pitt – to be unyieldingly believable together. Throughout the movie there isn’t a moment where the duo don’t seem genuinely in love. There are a lot of wet, soppy kisses and tight embraces that flood the screen during the film’s running time. With this kind of provocation, be prepared for tears to roll.

Some of the tale is cut from the short story – though I suspect no one will miss the part about Benjamin becoming a star football player at Harvard. But most of the whimsy and organic commentary about life, love, and perception remain intact. Supporting characters, such as the animate Captain Mike, a sailor who accompanies Benjamin on one of his many adventures, douse Benjamin with worldly knowledge. In fact, at the end of the movie, you begin to realize that Benjamin is less a central character as he is a witness to life’s calamitous obstacles and scathing beauty.

The original billing of the movie, calling for John Travolta to be cast in the lead role, could’ve been a tripe mess. Luckily for us, Pitt and company deliver the goods in one of the best pictures of the year.

 

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Author: Rob Patrick

A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, Rob created Cinema Spartan after he stepped down as the editor of a weekly. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. He has also introduced films with the Pacific Arts Movement. He co-owns two dire wolves, Buckley and Ruffin. At any given time, he can tell you superfluous hockey statistics. He is the chancellor of Tapatio, an advocate of iced tea, and an owner of at least 70 pairs of Vans.

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