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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
January 2009

Curiouser and curiouser

The new and the old collide in Fincher's eye-opening 'Benjamin Button'

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Paramount Pictures
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Eric Roth, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Tilda Swinton, Elias Koteas and Julie Ormond
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 40 minutes
(out of four)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has all the ingredients of your typical Oscar Picture - expensive production values, period settings, a big star, tragedy, romance . . . the romance of tragedy.

But that's not what makes this a great movie. If anything, those mere details cloud the issue. After all, the "tragedy" is inevitable from the start, the romance won't last anyway . . . and that big star? He's not even himself until two-thirds of the way into the movie.

The entire film is like its own facade. I know, I know, I've just stumbled into a clumsy metaphor about the title character - a man physically aging backwards but inside is on the same path as everyone else - but it's true all the same. Benjamin Button has all the tenets of classic filmmaking - that good, old-fashioned Hollywood drama - but uses modern sensibilities and techniques to explore the territory in a different light.

Whenever a good film - or even a bad one, come to think of it - presents a bizarre or backward premise, one feels compelled to defend the premise itself, and so I begrudgingly find myself doing the same here. A film like this is not successful or unsuccessful based simply on its gimmick - if that's what you want to call it - but on how it uses it. As Roger Ebert always says, it is not what a film is about, but how it is about it.

In the case of Benjamin Button, the concept is absolutely essential to the particular way the film works. There is a co-existence between life and death here, between young and old, between hope and regret. The film almost effortlessly explores the co-existence of all the things we take for granted as decidedly linear.

We get used to that linear trajectory, but The Curious Case forces us to see things, in an odd way more as they are than we usually believe them to be. Memories and emotions are changed by time, but they are what they are. Or were. In no other way - with no other storytelling technique or premise - could the film's diametrically opposed elements be so thoroughly and clearly examined.

There is an air of inevitability hanging over every frame, every interaction, that leaves a mark of poignance. We consider the relationship between Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) differently than we might if nothing was amiss. If there wasn't that elephant in the room. Their most passionate and playful moments together - with early John Lennon screeching "Twist and Shout" on the soundtrack - are touched with a certain mournfulness.

Actions have a different connotation, feelings have altered expectations. Benjamin himself sees life from an odd distance, but more important is the way he is viewed by everyone else - from the captain of his tugboat (Jared Harris), to the prostitutes he encounters as he comes of age, to his surrogate mother, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who first finds him as a shriveled old infant and takes him in. The way the film chronicles Benjamin's life, it's like a scrapbook of a character born into a life of isolation.

The film - and the character - are enhanced by a perpetual feeling of detachment, an embodiment of Benjamin's point of view that gives all of the proceedings a rather distant feeling, which some have interpreted as "cold."

The distance, however, is essential to the experience of the characters. I would argue that the film's central relationships are quite warm, but director David Fincher is careful not to over-sentimentalize it. That way, he avoids underscoring the "tragedy" of this doomed romance and can focus on what the film is actually about.

Of course, this is hardly the first time Fincher has explored a character like this. His protagonists (Fight Club, Zodiac and The Game are prime examples) are often isolated figures, different from the distorted world around them . . . or vice versa. The subgenre he's working within this time is magic realism, but he approaches it with a certain literalism that gives the film a slightly off-kilter presence.

The film has been compared to Forrest Gump - also written by Eric Roth - and the similarities are certainly there, only Benjamin Button doesn't suffer from such a shallow worldview and simplistic motives.

Of course - as if I need to add to the chorus - The Curious Case is a feat of bravura filmmaking. The period settings of New Orleans and beyond are captured with stunning detail and a perfectionist's eye by cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the whole of the art department; and the advanced special effects are, for the most part, seamlessly crafted (though there are a few exceptions); the performances are top-notch - most notably Pitt, who has long been underappreciated as an actor.

He delivers a touching and multifaceted performance in this one - from his sense of wonder as he reaches young adulthood (his body shaking off the wrinkles and wear it was born with), to the sincerity and confusion he wears on his face as he grows up, to the gentle machismo of his romantic years and finally the subtle grace of his twilight as his body grows younger.

Over the last few years, there have been several films - perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not - that have tried to reconcile themselves with the inescapabilities of aging, death, loss and time. The Fountain, Youth Without Youth and Synecdoche, New York come to mind, but there have been others as well. I find that interesting, given the height of our current obsession with such matters.

Now comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It seems fitting that a film that deals with the beginning and the end, birth and death, would itself be an example of the old and the new colliding in a big bang of cinematic energy. Button is death and love and fear and dreams and life, and it urges us to consider them all at once.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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