The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Review)

David Fincher’s latest is curiously conventional

Dec 23, 2008 at 2:06 pm

If there’s one word to describe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it’s right there in the title: curious.

This would appear to be the kind of lavish, carefully produced and “important” Hollywood film, cast with the best stars available (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in this case), that usually is designed to impress the eye with its grandeur and appeal to the heart with its affirmations about life. Maybe with a touch of the miraculous/spiritual involved.

When such Hollywood inspirational epics work, they become pop culture — and win Oscar nominations. Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption, for instance. When they don’t work, like The Majestic or Meet Joe Black, they are like watching paint peel.

But this film, about a New Orleans man born elderly who then ages in reverse, is different in some key respects. David Fincher, who is not known as an inspirational filmmaker, directs it. While it is disguised as one of those inspirational movies — and at some 160 minutes is as long as one of those movies — its soul is much darker. If there is a typical, traditional payoff of redemption or affirmation here, it isn’t readily apparent. What exactly drew Fincher, Pitt and everyone else to this project? It’s all so … curious.

Benjamin Button flaunts its meticulous production values. The extensive makeup work is state of the art, as are the digitized special effects and the vividly foreboding cinematography by Claudio Miranda. Alexandre Desplat’s music sets a tone of importance.

The film’s time span is roughly World War I to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. That allows it to be, among other things, a social history of the South. When the infant Benjamin’s father abandons him for being so freakishly ugly, the more charitable young black housekeeper at a home for the aged (Taraji P. Henson) takes him in and accepts him as family — for the rest of her life.

Pitt looks convincing as an elderly man, and watching him get stronger and subtly younger is fascinating. And when his Benjamin arrives at the point where he’s in life’s prime, he of course looks great — like Brad Pitt. The actor also speaks with a gently authoritative Southern accent that never sounds strained or forced.

Blanchett, as the restlessly free-spirited young/older woman Daisy, a dancer who falls in love with Benjamin as he slowly reaches Pitt’s natural age, is absolutely ravishing. (Early in the film, child actors play the young Daisy; late in the film, child actors play the “young” Benjamin.) Her skin is as smooth and glamorously soft as a Degas pastel, her smile as benign as a Renaissance Madonna’s. As they fall in love and share their best years together — her growing older, him younger — the movie virtually casts aside its narrative to let us drink up its two stars’ beauty while their characters flaunt their infatuations.

But we never quite feel their love. This part of the movie plays more like a still life than something alive and full of flesh. These scenes, which should be the lifeblood of the movie, come across as hermetic. And slow.

It might be that Fincher can’t warm up to what should be the sweeter parts of the story, the time when Benjamin and Daisy are in love and truly happy. It’s tough for him to be conventional. He has worked with Pitt on Se7en and Fight Club, hardly candidates for the 100 Most Romantic Films list, and re-created 1970s-era San Francisco in the troubling Zodiac.

This film is full of dark skies, impending storms, shadowy streets and freezing, wintry cold. Even the principal setting — that home for the aged — isn’t glamorous.

The primary screenwriter is Eric Roth (with an assist from Robin Swicord), who wrote the gooey, counterculture-bashing screenplay to Gump. But he’s been into a more pessimistic mood lately, with Munich and The Good Shepherd.

The source material no doubt inspired Fincher and Roth — cute it’s not. It’s a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald written in 1922 but set mostly in the second half of the 19th century. It closes with all memory fading from the infant’s mind. While this version changes all the details, it ultimately embraces that fatalistic, morose vision — life in reverse would still lead to death, so what’s the point to fantasizing about getting younger? Birth would just be death.

The film’s most emotionally satisfying passage occurs where the weather is the worst, Russia’s northwest seaport of Murmansk. There a late-middle-age Benjamin, working as a seaman, has a secret affair with a “younger” married British woman (Tilda Swinton, exuding magic) in a nearly deserted hotel. (Late in the film, Swinton returns for the movie’s most triumphant and affirmative — if fleeting — moment.)

The narrative is framed by an elderly, ailing Daisy in a hospital, letting her adult daughter (Julia Ormond) read from a diary kept by Benjamin. Meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina is just about to hit, which tells us it’s 2005. In movies, such present-day-looking-back framing devices usually are used to bring closure. Think of Gloria Stuart in Titanic.

Needless to say, since we know what Katrina wrought, this doesn’t. You’re liable to leave wondering what’s the point of memories, even history itself, if it all just gets washed away? Curious, indeed. Grade: B-