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Curious Case of Benjamin Button a Wonderful Epic

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Paramount/Warner Bros., 2008

Director David Fincher has skewed towards dark, violent material in the past, beginning with his debut, Alien 3, then on to his breakthrough Seven, his first re-team with Brad Pitt with Fight Club, and last year’s Zodiac.  And of course, his other movies The Game and Panic Room weren’t exactly cheery.  So it was interesting to hear that Fincher was doing a good ol’ fashioned epic, much like Paul Thomas Anderson did last year with There Will Be Blood after his career had taken a starkly different path.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the book, came way before Forrest Gump, but comparisons to the 1994 film are bound to happen, especially since screenwriter Eric Roth also wrote the screenplay to Gump.  You essentially have characters with afflictions who were not expected to be worth a damn who go on to have extraordinary experiences.  They both have enduring love interests from childhood to adulthood that become the backdrop to those experiences.  Both characters find friendship with “big brother” or “uncle” types who help them grow into men.

We see an old woman (Cate Blanchett) on her hospital deathbed talking to her daughter (Julia Ormond), who reads the diary of the man she loved, Benjamin Button.  The movie will go back and forth between this scene and the story the diary reveals, all before Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans.  A prologue explains a blind clockmaker (Elias Koteas) who loses a son to World War I and creates a clock for Grand Central Station that runs backwards, “so that time may run backwards and our lost sons can come home.”  At around the same time in New Orleans, a woman dies giving childbirth to a child who is born “prematurely old.”  The father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) is told by his wife to make sure the boy is put in a safe place, and he leaves the child on the doorstep of a rest home.  The woman who tends to the old folks’ needs in that home, Queenie (the fantastic Taraji P. Henson) brings the child in as her own, claiming it is her sister’s.

As Benjamin (with various actors playing the role with Brad Pitt’s digitally inserted face, in a flawless, remarkable process) grows up, he looks like all the other people there, and is able to fit in.  He learns things from Queenie’s husband “Tizzy” (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) and from others, but it’s here where the childhood love grows with Daisy (played at a couple of stages by Elle Fanning and then Madison Beaty), who comes to visit her grandmother.  Daisy can tell something is a little different about Benjamin and is drawn to him.  Alas, at the point Benjamin turns “17″ he is ready to go out and see the world, and the eternal love is put on hold.

At this point, Benjamin has already begun to shape his life with adventure by teaming with Captain Mike (Jared Harris in another notable performance for this film) on a tugboat.  Just before striking out on his own, Mike has shown him the wonders of brothels.  And in an unexpected turn, Benjamin’s father, who somehow recognizes his son all grown up, gives Benjamin his first drink without revealing his secret.  Soon afterward, we see Benjamin in Russia striking up an affair with a married socialite Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) and once again teaming with Captain Mike to run a rogue mission during World War II.  All the while, he’s becoming noticeably younger.

It’s after all this Benjamin, now looking a lot like the Brad Pitt we all know, runs into the all-grown-up, critically-acclaimed dancer Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and the various mishaps at re-igniting their love before finally the inevitable occurs.  They have the classic love story, but when Daisy becomes pregnant, Benjamin becomes hesitant to become a father.  He feels like as he becomes younger, Daisy will have to take care of two children and he doesn’t want that.  This is a clever parallel between he and his own father, both deciding not to fulfill their duties because they are scared.

I was enthralled by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, mainly because I love epic stories with these kinds of narratives, where episodes help shape the characters before they are ready to settle down.  There is one such episode in the film where Button describes all the little things that had to happen to contribute to Daisy getting hit by a car and breaking her leg.  In a way, this is a fascinating departure from the story.  Since diaries are first person narration, the details that he describes: a woman running late, a taxi that picks up a different fare, a truck that moves too late, couldn’t possibly be known by him.  I don’t care if it’s a mistake, or if it’s a romantic imagining of what could have happened presented as fact, it’s the type of storytelling I enjoy: seemingly insignificant plot details that form a major consequence.

The awesome acting is in force from supporting roles by Henson, Ali, and Harris to our two leads.  Brad Pitt’s performance is one of those that doesn’t have a tremendous range of emotion due to the character he plays, but his lack of anger or happiness, straightforward “it is what it is” reactions to almost everything, is entertaining, and I think Pitt finds subtle range, where we know things are killing him or when things are good.  He doesn’t have to emote on a larger scale.  Cate Blanchett is, of course, always good.  The look on her face in a darkened bedroom, watching Benjamin leave the room (forever? for just a little while?) is one of the images that will be burned on my brain this year.

It’s one of my favorites this year, and Oscar will likely respond in kind.

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