From the screenwriter who brought us Forrest Gump comes a similar, albeit more somber tale, of a man's decades-long story. In one of the most uniquely crafted movies of 2008, Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, a person who is born old and dies young. Considered a potential Best Picture winner, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button throws on its head the perception of age, wisdom and experience.
For most of us, we do not truly mature until we are in our 20's, and as we gather experiences over the following decades, we (presumably) become more aware of what life means and what we should have done differently when we were younger. As our minds peak, however, we can no longer physically do the things we could do as a child, or as a teenager... But what if that were not the case? Benjamin Button is born as the ugliest baby in the world, discarded by his father after the mother dies and taken in by several senior citizens at a retirement home. Expected to die soon due to extreme old age, the baby instead grows into a child, and then a teenager, and his old features, cataracts and arthritis slowly fade. Benjamin's mind is growing older, but his body is growing younger. Enthralled by the beauty of a young female friend named Daisy, Benjamin's journeys - which lead to new experiences such as sex, drinking and love, working, exploring and war - crosses paths with her many times, though age keeps them apart. When they finally do connect, however, time is limited, as while Daisy grows older, Benjamin becomes younger...
The story is a fascinating one, and one that is executed well by director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth. Earlier this year, Baz Luhrmann set out to make 2008's only epic romance - Australia - and came close but never fully succeeded. Only a month later, Fincher and Roth have made something that does feel much more epic, despite having a narrower, more personal focus. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is like Forrest Gump in many ways; its narrative approach, which begins in the present during Hurricane Katrina and flashes back to a time of yesteryear as we follow Benjamin's lonely journey, is very similar to the constructs of Gump. Both title characters are limited by their bodies early in life. Even the dialogue and focus on wisdom are similar. For the most part, Benjamin Button is this year's Forrest Gump, albeit a tad more serious. It is also one of the best movies of the year.
However, the comparison to Forrest Gump, which I do believe is a fair comparison, also shows where the film could have been better. Forrest Gump was a tighter film, and at 159 minutes long, one wonders what Benjamin Button would have been had it been 20 minutes shorter. There are parts in the middle that drag a bit - they're never boring, but they don't captivate, either. The film lingers on the scenes where Pitt and Cate Blanchett finally spend time together because this is the crux of the story, yet the most entertaining - and most interesting - moments come near the beginning, where Benjamin is a young man stuck in an old man's body. As Brad Pitt looks more and more like his handsome self, the movie loses some of its edge and uniqueness.
Benjamin Button doesn't have to be as funny as Forrest Gump, but it is more subdued for the sake of being subdued. There are some great laughs, especially revolving around a man who's been struck by lightning seven times in his life, but Roth doesn't mix humor and drama as effectively as he did in Gump. We shouldn't expect Benjamin's journeys to cross historical moments like Forrest's adventures did, yet the expectation is there. Other than World War II, the different time periods that Benjamin lives in aren't as distinct, and it isn't always clear at what stage of life Benjamin is in (he seems to progress in stages rather than gradually).
All those comparisons, though, can be shrugged off; more important is that Benjamin Button doesn't always seem to explore what it means to be of the opposite age of what the body implies. Fincher and Roth are more successful with this near the end, as Benjamin must make a huge sacrifice, but early on, there doesn't seem to be as much conflict for the character. While there are moments where Benjamin is clearly limited by his old body, I would have liked to see more exploration into how this affects him early on in life. What does growing up in an old folk's home with no children to play with do to a man-child? The question is answered in the long term, but what does it mean in the present?
Nevertheless, despite these gripes, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a compelling and captivating tale. The movie's look is fantastic, and every character is well developed (including the lightning guy). The performances are outstanding, proving once again that Brad Pitt is not merely a pretty face to look at. Blanchett is once again strong, though if you were to compare her role here to previous Oscar-nominated ones, it isn't anything remarkable. Taraji P. Henson, who I have not been a fan of in the past, is also very good as Benjamin's foster mother.
The makeup work in the film is Oscar-worthy.
All in all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of those rare novelties where it plays both to widespread appeal and award contention. In other words, it is Oscar fodder. The movie is easy to get into and easier to enjoy, though a few tweaks could have taken it from being a very good film to being an excellent one. Tightening of the screenplay in a few places and a more central theme could have made this the best movie of the year. As is, it is still one of the best movies of 2008 - but not the best.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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