The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Every movie made employs the use of some sort of gimmick. Some are smaller than others and they don’t always work but whether it is the cast, the special effects, or something else, every filmmaker uses some device that they hope will allow their movie to rise above their contemporaries. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the gimmick is the story. A baby is born with the appearance and all of the physical limitations of an old man who ages backwards through life. It’s really a fascinating premise that, beyond its initial intrigue, stirs a lot of questions. How would one operate under the construction of backwards aging? How would you let it shape your everyday life? On a deeper level, how would you deal with the inevitability of loss in your life that would be compounded by that very construction? It is in the film’s attempt to answer these questions that you will find its true appeal.
At first glance, this film seems like a fairly odd film choice for director David Fincher. The styles of his previous films were consistently dark and stylish, in story and design. So why would a director who made his name with films like Fight Club, Se7en, and Zodiac opt for a character-driven fairy tale? For starters, he is one of probably a handful of directors with the ability to handle the special effects needed to properly translate the required images to the screen while being able to balance them against the story. If the main device of the movie is the setup, then right behind it would be how the effects were handled. Technologically, the film is a masterpiece. Throughout the film we see Benjamin (Brad Pitt) at every point in his life, from grave to cradle. Almost every scene features Pitt at various ages other than his own and you are left with no choice other than to believe it — it is just that seamless. In an early scene you see a child’s body with the 80-year-old face of Brad Pitt and you believe it. It is obvious enough to notice but subtle enough for you not to care. It’s only after the film is over do you start to wonder how it was done. The greatest compliment I can give the film is never once are you taken out of the story because of the effects.
The movie’s main conviction is that love transcends all things related to time. While still having the appearance of an old man but only ten or so years old in actual age, he meets Daisy, a young girl whose grandmother lives in the nursing home where he has grown up. During her many visits the two form a bond and play as children. As he gets old enough, or young enough in this case, to leave the house and begin living his life on his own, the two cross paths at intermittent times in each of their lives, all while Daisy (Cate Blanchett) grows older and Benjamin continues growing younger. The emotional weight of the movie is created in the conflict of the opposing directions of their aging. With the foundation firmly in place, the payoff is that much richer when they are finally able to be together. While this is where most love stories would end, they are still forced to contend with the predestination of his condition and its certain consequences.
Aging, love, and loss are things that we all must deal with at some point in our lives and death is an inevitability we all face. Benjamin is no different — he only takes a different path to get there. Or as it is put into perspective for him at one point in his life, “Sugar, we all end up in diapers.” We, of the normally aging variety also have a definite end to our lives; we just don’t know when. A lot of people, like me, would say they prefer it that way, opting for the comfort of attempting to live each day like it is your last, or some other hackneyed brand of optimism. Like most pieces of advice from the bumper sticker pulpit, it is better in principle than execution. In reality, all it does is allows us the excuse, the sin, of procrastination because anything we don’t accomplish today can just wait until tomorrow. Benjamin isn’t afforded that opportunity. His life has a finite end laid out; he is just given a bit more notice than the rest of us and the path he chooses with this knowledge in his possession is what makes the film so great.
Sprawling epic stories like this have the tendency to drag on in spots, but even at almost 3 hours, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button moves at the pace of a film half as light. Screenwriter Eric Roth took some liberties adapting the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original short story, but wisely chose to steer clear planting Benjamin in the moments of historical circumstance that he did with Forrest Gump (which he also wrote). Doing so would have diminished the significance of the struggles Benjamin faced throughout the film undoing what it had spent so much time trying to accomplish. In other words, it would have been a disaster. Instead, historical moments were sparingly used as to merely anchor the story and depict the passing of time.
One could surmise that the gimmick of Benjamin’s aging is what drives the movie, rendering it less effective. It is true that therein lies the framework of the story, but the movie rises above cliché not because of the gimmick but because of the choices he is forced to make because and in spite of his condition. We should all be so wise.
And there’s the rub.
**** out of ****