Ageless & evergreen
Review by Vives Anunciacion
Inquirer Libre January 9, 2009
(Translated into English, revisions in red)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
Based loosely on the short story by F. S. Fizgerald
Back in the mid-‘90s, there was a music video of Return to Innocence by German electronic group Enigma which showed the life of a man in reverse, beginning with his death from old age going backwards to his infancy. YouTube it if you get the chance. In some ways, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is similar to that video’s visual poetry, narrative and sentimentalism.
“I was born under unusual circumstances,” narrates Benjamin (Brad Pitt) regarding his extraordinary birth. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an unusual fairy tale about a man born as a baby in his 80s who ages backwards, and the moments which defined his lifetime. Benjamin’s story unfolds as Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads a diary for her bedridden mother Daisy (Cate Blanchett), aged and withering as Katrina batters Louisina outside the hospital. *paraphrased from the print
At the end of the First World War, Benjamin’s biological father abandons him in an old-persons retirement home (like Golden Acres) and a kindly woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) adopts and raises him as her own child. Just like Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button discovers life as he discovers himself, meeting many different people along the way, especially Daisy who becomes the love of his life. I can’t tell much of the story without giving away too much, so let’s just put it at that.
It’s not surprising that Benjamin Button is similar to Forrest Gump because Eric Roth wrote the stories of both films. But they’re not the same. In Gump’s story, Gump became part of many incredible moments in history. For the old Benjamin, he was just happy to be alive.
If BB were to be described in terms of other films, it’s like the flashbacks of Big Fish mixed with Gump’s fables, plus the romance of Titanic and the emotional wonder of Amelie. Despite the heavy make-up and tons of incredible special effects to show Benjamin growing young, Brad Pitt gives a very restrained, subtle performance and a gentle voice-over that greatly heightens the emotional resonance of the events in Benjamin’s life, most of them poignant, but frequently punctuated with humor.
Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris as the boisterous Capt. Mike and an understated cameo from Tilda Swinton (as Benjamin’s fling Elizabeth) all give powerful performances worthy of praise.
But no film is perfect, no matter how technically masterful or beautifully photographed Benjamin Button is (which it is, actually). From start to finish, director David Fincher’s (se7en, Fight Club) epic narrative is spoon-fed to the audience, as if saying, “here’s Benjamin, you will like him.” But that’s all I can complain about and nothing more, not even the 3-hour running time.
“Nothing lasts” is the main philosophy of this curious case, an elegiac meditation on the magic of each moment in our lives, even if it runs in reverse, even if it’s not perfect.
Flawed and beautiful, just like life.
(Printed version ends here)
Again, I leave out things which are still worth mentioning, but have no place to put them in in the print version. POSSIBLE PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD – stop reading here if you don’t want to be spoiled. I think the review above has enough information, and reads as a positive recommendation to see the film even without writing it down.
BB’s conceit is that it’s easy to get hooked with Benjamin from the get go, soon after we see that wrinkled infant left on the front porch of the old house. Who wouldn’t pity the poor thing?
Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and Ali (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) are the African-American caretakers of the retirement home who take Benjamin in as their own, but it is Queenie’s motherly instincts that kick in instantly which saves baby Benjamin from being orphaned at birth. Or worse. From that point onwards as Benjamin grows… er, young, an exceptional bond is established between the young boy in an old man’s body and his adoptive mother Queenie. As I mentioned in the print version, Henson is praise-worthy here, even Awards-worthy, as she provides an uncanny warmth to Queenie, she might as well be anybody’s beloved mother.
Alas for the incomparable Cate Blanchett (and I am a huge fan of hers since she declared marriage to England in “Elizabeth”) her problem is not that she couldn’t portray Daisy in various stages of her life, it’s the character itself – underwritten and without much arch simply because it is through her that Benjamin’s story is told. BUT STILL, Blanchett is magnificent with what she was given, even DANCING gracefully, as her Daisy becomes a ballerina.
But as for Benjamin’s and Daisy’s romance, Pitt and Blanchett just have enough chemistry to make it believable, and the edit is pretty good enough that their bond resonates no matter how many times they are separated by time and circumstance, as the story sweeps from 1919 to 2004. That resonance is crucial, especially in the heartbreaking ending, nearly 80 years after they first meet.
Of particular curiosity is that, while watching the many incredible scenes laced with special effects, there is a constant feeling of being pulled out of the moment because one begins to wonder at the sheer movie magic displayed onscreen – especially each time Pitt’s face is onscreen even if it’s not his actual body. Except a scene or two.
I also mentioned the fact that the story is “punctuated” – intermittently by humor. One favorite is the Lightning Guy. “Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning seven times?” and each situation he gives is a source of hearty laughter.
I’ve already said it’s a technical marvel, that it’s beautifully shot, etcetera, etcetera. The real magic of Benjamin Button is that, simple and stupendous its premise may be, it’s all about the moments – how each second of life is magical, and that these moments define us who we are, even those which our eyes miss.