Thursday, December 25, 2008

Film review: 'Benjamin Button' is curious -- but sublimely so

By Hap Erstein

Director David Fincher has built a career on such dark, disquieting dramas as
Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac. So it is surprising to find him at the helm of a thoughtful, but fanciful romantic epic like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a triumph of special effects in service to solid storytelling.

Based very loosely on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name, this is a fable about a man swimming against the tide of life, aging backwards from an old, but baby-sized, arthritic geezer through an eventful existence that spans most of the 20th century and ends with him as a youth suffering from senility.

Along the way, Benjamin meets and falls in love with a headstrong girl named Daisy -- a very Fitzgerald moniker -- but since her aging process is more conventional, their lifelong relationship is out of synch more often than not.

Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin, a wide-eyed observer of the world around him, a blank slate character not unlike Forrest Gump. It is surely no coincidence that that earlier, wildly popular film and this substantially less sentimental tale were both written by Eric Roth. Roth has a habit of underlining his themes with greeting card aphorisms, from Gump’s box-of-chocolates motto to such tidy Benjamin Button truisms on the unpredictability of life (“You never know what’s comin’ for you”) and its ephemeral nature (“Nothing ever lasts.”)

The film’s structure is more like that of a novel than a short story, with discrete chapter divisions on Benjamin’s alarming birth, his deposit at a nursing home, his adventures at sea, his first romantic encounter with a woman determined to swim the English Channel (Tilda Swinton), the arrival of a kindly stranger, Benjamin’s adult pursuit of Daisy and his later -- which is to say younger -- years.

The entire history of Benjamin Button is framed by an elderly Daisy, on what looks likely to be her New Orleans hospital deathbed, attended by her daughter (Julia Ormond), who reads her Benjamin’s journals. Roth adds in Hurricane Katrina heading to shore, a handy time marker and perhaps a symbol of life’s precarious nature, but it is a dramatic tangent that never really pays off.

The vagaries of fate are far better illustrated by a masterfully directed sequence in which classical ballerina Daisy sees her dance career come to a sudden end in Paris because a series of unrelated events are aligned. Fincher, whose past work was all cold, hard edges, shows remarkable affinity for Benjamin’s story, wooing moviegoers to buy into the fantasy and get caught up in its emotional consequences.

He is aided considerably by the make-up of Greg Cannom as well as the digital wizardry that pastes Pitt’s face on various smaller bodies. The visual image trumps Pitt’s performance, but this is surely his most accomplished work on screen, carrying the film, making the impossible plausible.

Blanchett spans a similar series of ages, from a gawky teen to a lithe, graceful dancer to the bedridden aged Daisy under layers of latex makeup. Taraji P. Henson makes a strong impression as the caring African-American woman who becomes Benjamin’s surrogate mother and Swinton is quirky and tender as his first love.

The film clocks in at almost three hours, with plenty of story tangents, but each is justified, adding to the portrait of this extraordinary character in his journey through life.

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