The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Running time 159 minutes
Written by Eric Roth
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson
They saved the best for last. Sure, the end of 2008 produced its share of animated kid stuff. Daniel Craig overcame his James Bond label long enough to prove he can still act, in Defiance (this time as a homeless Jew gamely fighting back in the German forest during World War II). They refused to show Tom Cruise as a Nazi in Valkyrie to the critics (always a bad sign). Clint Eastwood’s return to acting as a bigoted old Korean war vet who finds his heart through the Vietnamese family next door was the only memorable element in the otherwise shmaltzy, sentimental and highly preposterous Gran Torino. And the bloated, overproduced and incomprehensible remake of the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still turned out to be a sorry mistake. But when the news is good, it’s simply great. In a year notable mostly for its profligate tossing-around of overrated bores like Happy-Go-Lucky and pretentious, open-sewer trash like Synecdoche, New York, it comes as an act of real holiday season benevolence to bestow upon us, in rapid succession, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Revolutionary Road. Here are three sensational movies that revive my faith in America’s greatest art form.
Brad Pitt is so pretty that a lot of people forget what an accomplished actor he is. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, even his most ardent fans will be unprepared for the physical and emotional power of his range and versatility in the title role of this wrenching, demanding and captivating film experience. Reunited with the gifted David Fincher, who directed him in one of his best films, the dark and creepy noir thriller Se7en, Mr. Pitt tackles an F. Scott Fitzgerald story as fresh and original as it is riveting. An ancient crone on her hospital death bed (another astonishing performance by Cate Blanchett) draws her last breaths sifting through her memories while her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads from the diaries of an old boyfriend named Benjamin Button, who narrates the events of his life like a work of literature. The contents pour out of the pages in a tableau of breathless cinematic adventures, as the story unfolds of a remarkable man who beat the odds against time and biology. Benjamin was born prematurely old in postwar 1918 New Orleans—a deformed freak in an inexplicable shift of time running backwards. Swaddled in a dirty baby blanket, he had the body of an ancient troll—arthritic, nearly blind with cataracts, wrinkled like yeast dough drying out on a cutting board. His mother died in childbirth, and when his grieving father, a buttons manufacturer, took one look at what he had sired, he plucked Benjamin from his cradle and abandoned him on the steps of a senior retirement home with $18 attached to his diapers. Oddly enough, among the elderly residents of the facility, the baby seemed right at home. By the age of 7, he was an old gnarled man in a wheelchair, befriended only by a black servant who acted like a surrogate mother, and a girl named Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the patients. As Daisy grows up, Benjamin gets younger, until they are the same age. She turns into Cate Blanchett; he turns from a withered little Truman Capote clone into the dashing countenance of Brad Pitt. At 17, he goes to sea and sees the world, his skin clears, his wrinkles iron smooth, and in an icy Russian winter in a boarding house for sailors, he experiences an introduction to sexual education in the bed of the lonely wife of a British trade merchant (Tilda Swinton), who changes his life. As one of the survivors of a violently depicted submarine attack, he returns to New Orleans from World War II in 1945 a hero, but Daisy has moved to New York to pursue a career as a dancer and ends up in the dream ballet in Carousel. By the time he gets to Broadway to see her, he’s turned into an Esquire cover of blond, camera-ready, clean-cut, all-American beauty, like a crew captain on the Dartmouth rowing team. “Look at you—you’re perfect!” she cries, and you can’t resist a laugh. I mean, he sure is. He’s Brad Pitt!
Although their paths keep crossing, romance is on rewind. Guilt-ridden, the father who rejected him as an infant returns and leaves him a fortune, and Daisy’s dancing career is wrecked when her leg is crushed by a taxi in Paris. He thinks the time is finally right for unconditional love, but now she’s the one with the deformity who can only give half a loaf. By the time their lives at last conjoin in marriage in 1962, and she faces the truth behind the enigmatic puzzle of Benjamin Button, there are tears, and there is humor, too. “Will you still love me when I get old and my skin gets wrinkly?” she asks between bouts of passionate coitus. “Will you still love me when I get acne and start wetting the bed?” he counters. The notion of getting younger as the years go by may seem like a dream to most of us (the perfect antidote to Botox), but the problems are daunting. You outlive everyone you know. By the time you become a parent, you may have to share the nursery. How can you raise a child when it’s time to raise yourself? It would spoil things to reveal how the movie resolves this dilemma. When you first see him, he looks like a twice-baked Idaho potato. The last time you see Benjamin Button, he looks like the new Harry Potter.
The point in the F. Scott Fitzgerald story and the richly textured, meticulously redacted screenplay by Eric (Forrest Gump) Roth is that everything in life and death is predetermined, and even if you turn the clock backward, you might be able to reverse the order but you can’t change the outcome. Clearly, this is a movie that must be experienced, not explained. From Broadway to Russia, beginning in the Depression and ending when Hurricane Katrina sweeps through New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, this movie is so vast and covers so much ground that any feeble attempt to tell you what happens in it only weakens the impact. It is equally challenging to adequately convey the depth and range of Brad Pitt’s performance. I’ve liked his work since the first time I saw him, in that scene-stealing cameo in Thelma and Louise. Whether it’s great works like Babel or lousy mistakes like Troy and Interview With a Vampire, he always makes bold and adventurous choices, takes admirable risks and never fails to surprise. He’s a good collaborator for director David Fincher; Se7en was only a preview of what they both can do. Brilliantly directed and acted, sumptuously photographed and endlessly fascinating, Button runs nearly three hours, and I never glanced at my watch one time. Unlike the exhausting Australia, it’s an epic that sprawls but never meanders. Through the decades, it changes gears as fast as Brad Pitt changes his appearance, each period of time like a new chapter in a novel you never want to end. Trust me. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a monumental achievement—not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the greatest films ever made.