Friday, January 2, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Clasped hearts

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) • View trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for war violence, sensuality and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.2.09
Buy DVD: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button • Buy Blu-Ray: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button: The Criterion Collection [Blu-ray]

Death and sorrow hang over this film like a shroud.

But not despair — never despair — and that's an important distinction.
Having faithfully brought her foster child to revival-style church meetings
every Sunday, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) is amazed and gratified when
Benjamin takes his first few halting steps, apparently having had his "demons"
exorcised by the nearby minister. As it happens, the truth is much more
complicated than that...

I wonder, though, whether that subtlety will be perceived by mainstream viewers more inclined to chafe at this film's deliberate, leisurely tone and close to three-hour length. The rewards are many for those with a maturity to appreciate this story's primary message — that life is measured, not in minutes, but in moments — but director David Fincher's approach is relentlessly melancholy.

Despite its unusual story and unexpected bursts of whimsy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button likely will be perceived as a major downer.

In this respect — and in many others, come to think of it — this film bears a striking similarity to 1998's Meet Joe Black, an equally long and unhurried effort by star Brad Pitt to sell himself as a peculiar protagonist (and, as a result, bizarre romantic lead) in a decidedly adult fairy tale.

Fortunately, Benjamin Button is a more polished and intriguing story: one whose weight justifies this film's length (definitely not the case with Meet Joe Black). Fincher also has a better handle on the all-essential approach required to keep this concept afloat: one wrong move, and the entire project would sink like the drowned WWII sailors Benjamin (Pitt) encounters during one of his many adventures.

Although ostensibly based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord's screenplay borrows little more than the title and freakish central concept of a man born old, who subsequently ages backwards. Aside from the additional grace note of a female lead named Daisy — a nod to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby — this is a wholly original tale, and a striking one, at that.

It has the episodic, Everyman-experiences-life structure of Forrest Gump, blended with the anticipatory heartbreak of 1968's Charly, itself based on "Flowers for Algernon," a Daniel Keyes fantasy story (later novel) that explored the consequences of knowing one's fate in advance.

Using a dual flashback/ voice-over narrative style — Benjamin gently relates his saga, his voice taking over from Caroline (Julia Ormond), as she reads his diary aloud to her elderly and rapidly failing mother, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) — our hero introduces himself as he says, with unintended irony, "I was born under unusual circumstances."

The year is 1918, the setting New Orleans, where a distraught father — whose wife has died in childbirth — abandons his infant son on the steps of Nolan House, a retirement home filled with kindly elderly tenants and their equally benevolent caregivers. The baby, unattractive to the point of appearing deformed, is embraced by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, truly radiant), a church-going woman who believes that all children possess God's grace.

A baffled doctor examines the infant and discovers arthritis, hardening of the skin, dangerously brittle bones and all the other signs of extreme old age; he cautions that the baby probably won't live long. But Benjamin, as he is named, confounds this diagnosis: surviving, growing and becoming something of a pet among the residents of Nolan House.

The New Orleans setting is crucial, as it allows an unremarked free association of men, women, whites, blacks, doddering oldsters and youthful visitors: a true melting pot of temperaments and attitudes. Nobody is critical, and racism never rears its ugly head, nor does censure toward unmarried adults who share their hearts and beds.

Despite the persuasive conviction with which Roth and Swicord construct this warm and nurturing environment, its bucolic cheerfulness is our first indication — after Benjamin's own existence, of course — that what follows, while set in our own real world, isn't quite of our world.

Death is a common visitor at Nolan House, as various old folks pass away, their rooms — previously filled with possessions that uniquely defined the recently departed soul (every one of them sketched quickly but oh-so-memorably) — newly occupied by fresh arrivals.

In their own way, though, these are the perfect circumstances for a "child" who, though still looking like an oddly tiny little old man, must be educated like any other growing boy; Benjamin resolutely deals with his physical limitations while absorbing the wisdom and perspective of his housemates.

He also adopts an equanimity toward loss that few ever gain, let alone at an early age. The residents of Nolan House face their mortality with dignity; Benjamin learns to do no less, when dealing with his own unique circumstances.

The rotating nature of his housemates also conceals what only Queenie begins to notice: that Benjamin, although logically becoming larger, also seems to be getting ... well ... healthier. This oddity also is observed by an occasional guest: a little girl named Daisy who, due to infrequent visits with her grandmother, is in a better position to appraise Benjamin's changing nature.

As they're both children — even if Benjamin doesn't look like a child — their bond develops into something special.

Describing much more would spoil the joys to be discovered during Benjamin's subsequent adventures, as the boy-man gains the strength to depart from Nolan House and seek his fortune elsewhere. He encounters numerous fascinating people — chief among them a grizzled tugboat captain (Jared Harris) and a lonely diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton) posted in the far-flung Russian port town of Murmansk — but always eventually returns, like a moth to a flame, to Daisy (now Blanchett).

Unfortunately, their timing always seems off.

We begin to wonder if they're destined to meet in the middle, as it were ... and, if so, how they'll subsequently view the remorseless fact that their lives then will diverge again, in an increasingly painful manner.

The episodic nature of Benjamin's various encounters reflects the diary entries that Caroline reads aloud to her mother. As they do so well with the various residents of Nolan House, Roth and Swicord deftly sketch these myriad events and people; each leaves a lingering memory, in great part because they're so fully inhabited by striking and personable actors.

Each event leaves a mark on Benjamin; each further informs his generous nature and increasingly unique world view.

Pitt, developing into an actor of uncommon grace and emotional vitality, infuses Benjamin with preternatural stillness; this performance is very "interior," and yet great depths of feeling are visible in the actor's features, and in the set of his head and body. We can't help bonding with Benjamin on a truly profound level, even though he seems to say and do very little. (That's deceptive.)

As was the case with Tom Hanks' Forrest Gump, Benjamin's primary role is to react: to be the sponge that absorbs and then retains the best parts of every person he encounters. Pitt handles this with understated skill.

Blanchett's Daisy, on the other hand, is a force of nature: a strikingly flamboyant creature determined to seize not just the moment, but the entire universe. She's Woman as an icon: an intelligent, sensitive, radiantly gorgeous and palpably sensuous free spirit. Daisy gives Benjamin fire and passion; he grounds her, making her recognizably mortal.

As she is in so many roles, Blanchett is memorably intoxicating here, her every word and gesture guaranteed to palpitate the heartstrings.

Although for the most part as serious as this elegant project demands, Fincher occasionally indulges the darkly Puckish nature he demonstrated more freely in Se7en, The Game and Panic Room. This film begins with a faux "documentary" prologue that concerns a blind clockmaker who fashions a mighty timepiece that runs backwards, for somber reasons of his own; a sidebar running gag involves an elderly Nolan House resident who loves to tell of the seven times he was struck by lightning, the various examples revealed with what only can be called a slapstick tone. (Unfortunately, though, we never see all seven!)

Then, too, Daisy's fateful encounter with destiny unfolds as a saga of happenstance and coincidence, recounted by Benjamin's narrative voice in a manner wholly unlike any other sequence in the film. It's unusual, to be sure, but it fits the film's preoccupation with blind chance.

Alexandre Desplat's deeply moving orchestral score is wonderfully, richly melodic: truly refreshing at a time when far too many movies employ monotonous, tuneless soundtracks or sublimate them completely beneath dialogue and sound effects. As always has been the case with cinema's best scores, Desplat's work here will evoke scenes from this movie for decades to come, after but a quick listen to this or that bit of music.

And here's a bit of compositional dexterity: Desplat's main theme for Benjamin is palindromic ... which is to say, it plays backwards the same as it is heard forwards.

Finally, I cannot say enough about production designer Donald Graham Burt, make-up designer Greg Cannom and visual effects supervisor Eric Barba. The sense of time and place — flapper-era New Orleans, post-WWII New York — are amazing throughout, as is the cleverness with which Pitt inhabits the many age-related nuances of his role.

Old age can be conveyed via make-up, and it's superb (on both Pitt and Blanchett). But it's much more than that, from the subtle realization that Pitt's height and size change, in relation to everybody else around him, to the frankly amazing degree to which the actor "youthens" in the film's final act.

Pitt didn't look this fresh-faced in Thelma and Louise or his infrequent appearances on TV's Dallas in the late 1980s. Talk about a jaw-dropping "How'd they do that?" moment...!

Fincher doesn't quite maintain all story elements to the very end, however. Despite its length, the final sequences feel rushed, and we definitely miss out on some necessary closure between Caroline and Daisy. I can understand all concerned not wanting to dwell on the profoundly sad final scenes, but still ... we simply don't leave the theater with the greater appreciation for life's mysteries that Roth and Swicord undoubtedly intended.

But The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is, without question, a rich and riveting journey.

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