© 2008 Ray Wong
Loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button chronicles the life of Button, who was "born under unusual circumstances."
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born with a rare disease that causes him to have the body of an octogenarian, complete with arthritis, cataracts, and other geriatric ailments. His father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), an owner of a button business, abandons him. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a worker at a charity old folks' home, adopts Benjamin as her own despite that their races. The doctor only gives Benjamin a short time to live anyway.
Little does she know that Benjamin ages backward. As he grows older, he appears younger. By age 7, he learns to walk. He also becomes friends with Daisy, who is about his age. As Benjamin becomes "younger" and stronger, he decides to have some adventures and he starts to work on a tugboat with Captain Mike (Jared Harris). Benjamin gets to experience life for the first time and falls in love with a married woman Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton).
When Benjamin returns to New Orleans years later, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) has grown up and gone to New York in pursuit of a career as a dancer. Fate brings the two back together. As Benjamin grows younger and Daisy gets older, their lives intersect in the middle when they have a few years in which they're both physically and mentally the same age. They fall madly in love. But they both know what is going to happen next, and Benjamin makes a decision that will change the rest of their lives.
Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading) plays one of his most subtle and gentle roles to date. For the first half of the film, he literally disappears in the role with the help of old-age makeup and special effects. Even as his true-age self, Pitt manages to give a nuanced, quiet and earthly performance that is quite unlike his more showy efforts in the past. He has played ugly before (e.g. Twelve Monkeys) but here he's taking it to another level by playing a young boy in an old man's body and an old guy in a young man's body, and he's done a great job.
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) has the opposite challenge. She, too, has to play someone from the age of 20 to over 80. Her character comes off as a bit standoffish and cold, but she has some good moments with Pitt. She's always a brilliant actress, and she doesn't disappoint, especially as the older, dying Daisy who is drowning by her own memories. Her portrayal is heartbreaking.
The supporting cast is amazing. Taraji P. Henson (Hustle and Flow) is fantastic as Queenie, Benjamin's adoptive mother. She disappears in the role and gives one of the strongest and sympathetic performances in the film. Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading) is solid as the reserved woman who captures young (well, to her, he's old) Benjamin's heart. Jared Harris (Lady in the Water) is wonderfully wacky as Captain Mike, Benjamin's mentor and best friend. Jason Flemyng (Stardust) is effective as Benjamin's guilt-ridden father, and Julia Ormond (Surveillance) is excellent as Daisy's bewildered daughter.
Written by Eric Roth (The Good Shepherd) and Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha), the script is extensive, spanning over 80 years. The story unfolds and develops gradually in a languid, poetic pace. There is a fanciful nature to the story but the script itself is rather ordinary in a sense that it's not "plot-driven." In a way, it's very refreshing to see a story that spans 80 years and is completely about characters and their relationships. Narrated mostly by Benjamin, it's basically a diary or memoir, and it's episodic. There are no grand conflicts or surprising plot twists, but everything is anchored by an emotional core.
There is nothing earth-shattering about the story, or even the characters -- except Benjamin's curious conditions and the effects they have on him and everyone around him. Yet the writers have succeeded in giving us an engrossing biography of sort with great relationships and a philosophical take on mortality, love, and fate.
Director David Fincher (Zodiac) changes gear with Benjamin Button. Best known for this thrillers and grisly crime stories (Se7en, Fight Club), Fincher has given us a surprisingly gentle, slow-paced, and scrumptious feast of the heart. The special effects, especially ones involving Brad Pitt and the character of Benjamin Button, are truly exceptional. The makeup is phenomenal as well. In fact, the production is amazing, sort of a Forrest Gump meets Big Fish. However, Fincher grounds the fantastical elements and keeps the fancy storytelling to a minimum. Instead, he relies on the characters and their relationships to carry the entire film -- the special effects may be what draw people to the theater. But they will come out thinking of something else. At almost 3 hours, the film is long and slow, but it's so engaging and fascinating that I don't really mind. In fact, I can't keep my eyes off the screen.
Benjamin Button is a gorgeous movie with a great heart and true, pure emotions, a cinematic contemplation of mortality and life. It is a curious movie, and I for one am curious how well it will do with today's skeptical and cynical audiences.
Stars: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Eric Roth, Robin Swicord (based on short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking
Running Time: 169 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 9
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 9
Total – 8.3 out of 10