Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) is the thinking man's Forrest Gump (indeed, the two films were penned by the same screenwriter, Eric Roth). It is a quietly tragic tale of one man's very unique journey through the 20th Century. 
Directed to near perfection by David Fincher, the film is not only a well crafted fairy tale, but also a meditation on age and the unrelenting passage of time. Based upon a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Button follows the titular character from his birth as an elderly infant on through to his death in a similar state. This breadth of material explains the film's near 3-hour running time, and causes things to become a bit unwieldy now and then. There is a framing gimmick involving Daisy (Benjamin's love interest, played by Cate Blanchett with her usual elfin grace) upon her death bed, recounting to her daughter the tale of Benjamin Button. This element wouldn't be so bothersome if it didn't cut into the proper film so much; each time it does, it's like cold water dowsing a soothing flame. Apart from this, the film is nearly flawless.
Conjured with the same meticulous beauty as most other Fincher films, Button crafts a golden vision of the 20th century that is both nostalgic and authentically real. The camera lingers on just the right detail at just the right time; a character's expression or the cresting sunrise. The cinematography is immaculate and delicious. 
Paramount among the films qualities, however, is the acting. Taraji P. Henson brings just the right amount of tenderness and wisdom to the role of Queenie, Benjamin's surrogate mother, to keep it from lapsing into caricature. Tilda Swinton is watchable as always as a British aristocrat who carries on a short affair with Benjamin. 
On parallel double duty are Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt as fated lovers Daisy and Benjamin. This is their film; all other players, while skillful, are here only to shepherd these two through the story.
This film displays some of the finest age work in the history of cinema. The practical make up is subtle and convincing, but more importantly the performances are spot on. Blanchett especially manages to capture decrepit old age surprisingly well for a woman of only 39; her eyes take on just the right kind of weariness, her voice is wise and aching to just the right degree. She takes Daisy on a bittersweet journey from young adulthood to middle age right on through to death's door. 
Similarly, Brad Pitt gives maybe his greatest (definitely his subtlest) performance. He is tasked with first giving a digital performance for the film's initial third. Much akin to the method that brought Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings, Pitt had his face recorded by a computer and then pasted onto older and shorter actors to realize Benjamin as an elderly looking child. This might be the finest example yet of this very new technique, and it is very much the focus of first part of the film. But once Pitt takes on full acting responsibilities, providing not only his face but this whole, real body, Benjamin becomes the quiet little center that the noisy universe of the film revolves around. Pitt's work in this film confirms what I've suspected for awhile - that he is in fact a character actor in a leading man's body. 
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is cinematically melodic. It is not only the thinking man's Forrest Gump, it is the anti-Gump. 

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